by Hadley Stern

My 3 and a half year old son picked up my 12" powerbook the other day and plopped it open on his lap. Curious, I asked him what he was doing.

Hacking away at the keys he answered, with a rather serious look on his face, "I'm checking my email."

I was appropriately floored.

This got me thinking, in the 3 and half years of my son's life how much time has he seen me doing just that, "checking my email" on my laptop. Or, even worse, on my Blackberry. Suddenly, inexorably, my screen time has blossomed to an absurd degree.

It all started out with a book. As soon as I got the iPod and iTunes Hacks project I decided I needed a laptop. The need was practical. With a 2 year old and a newborn I needed to squeeze writing in anywhere in the house. Throw in a wireless network I was suddenly free to do work wherever I wanted.

The problem is I have a propensity to over-check. I'm not the kind of person who can't go out because I can't check my email, but I appear to have become the kind of person who has trouble being close to a computer and not just checking. The problem is, of course, there are so many things to check!

I have multiple email accounts, IM, and of course it's fun to check how book sales are doing on Amazon, or how site traffic is at Apple Matters.

I have to say I do enjoy keeping up to date. There is still nothing like getting a new email, even after all these years of using email (Except of course for the spam). But still, when does enjoyment become a tether?

Seeing my son imitating me has certainly got me thinking.

Do you feel like you spend too much time in front of a computer?


2005-04-08 08:27:25
Great blog entry!

This is indeed a situation we all heavy computer users have encountered in a way or another - and a great topic to think about. Thanks for depicting it in such a lively, interesting way, I'm glad I overchecked O'Reilly Weblogs today! ;^)


2005-04-08 09:58:16
just wait...
We recently decided to let our 9-year-old son take limited custody of a spare ibook we have and the "screen time" questions start getting really interesting.

Like yours probably, he has seen mom and dad spend far too much time sitting in front of their laptops around the house. (I even remember making the argument that laptop screen time was similar to tv screen time, and being able to sit with my computer in the living room with the family when they were watching some tv show I had no interest in was a good reason for the purchase of our wireless networking gear).

So now that my son has access to a laptop he can use on the net we've had to think harder about this kind of "screen time". We have a rule that he's allowed only one hour of screen time each day (with exceptions made for movies ;), which up until now he's had to share between the TV and his video game unit. But should sitting on the couch in front of the ibook count?

Depends what he's doing on it, right? His favorite computing activity these days is to read articles at, so that's really just reading (and articles that are written at a high level for him too, so not something I want to discourage). But he also likes to play games over on lines need to be drawn.

For now we're counting any game-playing on the ibook against his screen time quota, and letting him read more or less as much as he wants. But I'm not really comfortable with him spending hours in front of a computer at this age, even if he is just reading. (But do I feel differently about books? Should I?)

But the biggest question all this leaves me with is should his mom and I have daiily screen time limits too? ;)

Thanks for the thought-provoking blog!
2005-04-08 10:38:14
computer screen vs. tv screen
I have some similar thoughts around screen time with my eldest too. Of course we limit how much TV he watches, and it is always age-appropriate but sometimes he likes playing around on It is reading or watching TV? The games and stories on are more interactive than just plain old tv but they don't seem to require the same concentration as books.

And your comment about screen time for adults is spot on too. I spend probably about 6-12 hours (depending on the day) in front of a computer. Is that healthy (sometimes I wonder if ten years from now all of our eyes will stop working at the same time)?

I'm not sure. But I am sure that my kids will spend much more time in front of a screen that I did as a kid. I didn't have my first computer until my Apple II when I was 13, and it didn't come with such enticing things as the web, or IM. There were games, but nothing like what there is today.

I don't know, maybe it is all a good thing, all this screen time. Maybe I should want my kids to spend a lot of time in front of a computer (within reason, the question is what is reasonable?)