PREST: Family screen time rules are no match for little Italian man in a red hat

We’ve had a new addition to the family!

She arrived a couple of days after Christmas, and from the time we set eyes on her, she’s brought us immense joy. She’s also already taught us a lot about ourselves and our family dynamics, and challenged us in ways we’d never before imagined. Measuring 6.8 inches in height and weighing 10.5 ounces, she’s got the most adorable name: Nintendo Switch! (My wife insists she’s a girl. Not sure why. Maybe because she’s all powerful, and boys are always fighting over her.)

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OK, so you’ve figured out it’s not a baby, it’s a video game system. But as someone who has welcomed two human babies into my home, few things aside from an actual newborn child could have the impact that this little bundle of wires has had on my family. Look for her in next year’s Christmas card family photo! She’ll be the one we are all gazing lovingly at.

A little background here. When my first child was born, my wife and I sat down together and crafted a very detailed and comprehensive set of rules meant to limit the amount of screen time our child and any follow-up children would receive. We talked about all the research that linked over-exposure to screen time of any kind – TV, video games, computers, phones – to lower brain development with the increased risk of poor eating habits, obesity, behavioural problems, language delay, sleep impairments... There were some other things we talked about too – I can’t really remember, I was busy watching basketball.

Anyway, it all sounded legit. If the kiddos got too much screen time, their development might be affected and they would eventually end up working some brainless job like newspaper columnist or U.S. president.

In the end, “we” made the wise and measured decision to do our best to eliminate all screen time for our children before the age of two, and beyond that to limit them to an age-appropriate amount of 30 minutes or less on most days, with special allowances made once in a while for movies, lazy rainy weekends, major sporting events or any time my wife left the house. Just kidding! We wouldn’t dare, unless she left city limits.

My two boys are a little older now, both in grade school, and the plan seems to have worked pretty well: they both have no criminal records, and both can read and write at better than a U.S. president level.

With those milestones passed, we finally hit the Start button on their gaming careers, allowing them to cobble together some very generous grandparent Christmas money to buy a new video game console. And just for funsies, we bought two extra controllers so Mom and Dad could give it a try.

We plugged it in one rainy vacation morning with nothing on the agenda except vaguely monitoring our Irish cream intake so as not to pass out before brunch. Five days later, those screen time rules lay shredded and tattered on the living room floor, stomped on by Mario, chewed up and spit out by Yoshi, set ablaze by Bowser, and gently smiled at by Toad, who is actually a little man in a mushroom hat.

Welcome home, baby Switch. Call me Papa.

Don’t worry – those screen time rules were taped back together just in time for the return of school. But over one glorious week we learned a lot about each other, and ourselves.

Some of us would wake up every single day with the sole purpose of doing whatever it took to play Switch for as long as possible. It was like those cyborgs with the day’s mission running in a digital scroll on their goggles.

Wake up (Switch Switch). Make bed perfectly (Switch Switch). Greet family units (Switch Switch). Ignore hostile siblings (Switch Switch). “Hello Mother. You look nice today.” (Switch Switch).

One of us would stay up all night cradling the Switch controller with bleary eyes, like a concerned young parent living and dying with every little move, sound, or cartoon bomb thrown by a turtle driving a bathtub. Precious moments!

Two of us learned that they should probably not be on the same team for competitive partner games, lest things go badly and lines blur between virtually and actually smoking someone in the head with a potted plant.

One of us learned that the game is now the ultimate carrot/sword to dangle. “Stop hitting each other, or no Switch today.”

“Go to bed with no fussing, or no Switch tomorrow.”

“We can all play Switch, as soon as you clean the entire house, make dinner, re-shingle the roof and detail the car. Chop chop!”

The best part was that we did it together, as a family, which I highly recommend if you do make the Mario jump. I remember reading vaguely that screen time rules are different when the time is shared with the family as opposed to just children left alone to stare at a TV. I can’t recall exactly where I read this, and there’s more than a slight chance that I made it up, but I’m going to go ahead and call it a fact now and base the rest of my life around it.

In fact, I say the games don’t even count as screen time anymore. After all, she’s family!

I can’t wait to tell my wife.

Andy Prest is sports editor for the North Shore News. His humour/lifestyle column runs biweekly. aprest@nsnews.com

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