Saturday, 17 August 2013

Is computer time really so bad for our kids - or are they simply in a state of flow?

I actually wrote this piece a little while ago but remembered it again after reading a blogpost by the very lovely Ross Mountney. So Ross, maybe this will help you see a flip side to computer time... x


Last year I made a discovery which has changed my perception and understanding of creativity. Whilst trying to think up my doula name 'Go With The Flow Doula', I stumbled upon a philosophy based on the concept of ‘ Flow’, as defined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:


‘Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does….’

‘…According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described… as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.

Little flashing lights and buzzers were going off in my head - yes! That's it! That's how I feel during birth. And after reading this, I started thinking in wider and wider terms about the whole concept of being in flow, and what it meant to be doing a flow state activity. I looked up Mihaly’s work further, and found he had a talk on TED called  ‘Flow: The Secret to Happiness’ . Seriously, watch it. This guy is talking so much sense.

I can relate to this being the secret that makes all of us happy – doing activities during which our whole being vibrates with purpose and joy. I could see now what united every creative individual and every person who loves their work - moments when they feel truly in flow, creatively dynamic in an internal invisible way. 

I thought of all the times as a writer I have become so engrossed that I didn’t eat or drink or go to the loo for hours at a time. How I felt I had just one purpose in that moment – to write, to keep the words flowing, to express myself with a kind of urgency, purpose, and zeal that made me forget the world around me, not even noticing my numb bum or aching back till I’m done!  There have been times like this when I have felt so engaged in the activity of writing as to forget myself. In such moments, I am no longer me, Paula Cleary, but simply fingers dancing on a keyboard, moving almost as if by a power of their own, independently of me. It’s like I need to get out of my own way to let the creativity truly flow, that I am simply a vessel for something bigger.

And I think this is how all creative people feel when they are ‘in the zone’, or ‘in the groove’ – they cease to exist for anything other than that moment, that piece of work, everything else disappears into the background, as if falling away behind us.

As Mihaly describes in his TED talk, this is the state that is common between all people ‘in flow’ – whether they are dancers, painters, poets, composers or sportspeople. It is the state that describes how Michaelangelo become so engrossed in his work whilst painting the ceiling of the Cistine chapel that he did not sleep or eat properly - painting for several days at a time, non-stop.

And I had a kind of aha! moment one day while I was watching the boys playing minecraft on their computer, and was getting annoyed with it. Something started to happen as I sat and watched. 

Sifting past my angry feelings, I realised: Maybe these kids are not being' zombies', they are simply in an absolute, pure, state of flow.

The reason I felt annoyed with them was because they didn't want to break out of their state of flow to eat the dinner I had lovingly made. Or talk to me and validate their need for my presence, company, knowledge or supposed wisdom.

How many times have I been exactly like this when I am writing? It's not personal at all - this is how people are in flow. Nothing else matters, only the task in hand! You don't want to be interrupted, you can barely hear or see anything else. The world falls away to the sides and behind you.

The reason I felt annoyed with them was because I felt redundant. I was not needed. To educate, or keep them company, or direct them towards something 'purposeful'. They were doing it without me. My own ego was more of an issue than their computer playing. My hurt pride at the barely recognized, lovingly cooked-from-scratch, dinner effort. 

But I know first-hand, that during my own flow state, food seems irrelevant, minor. My chatter and interruptions are as much of a nuisance and barrier to the kids staying in flow as when people are trying to talk to me when I'm writing. How many times have I tried to break their flow fearing they were just being 'zombies'? I suddenly realized what I had been doing. They were having the time of their lives, completely in flow, on fire, in the zone. Chatting their own language amongst themselves for hours at a time, unaware of anything else -blissfully happy!

As adults, we perhaps spend less time in the flow state - but for kids it's easy peasy. They can literally spend hours engrossed in Lego, role-playing, making mud-pies, daydreaming, or playing dollies. Kids are experts at flow - perhaps that's why they are so much happier than many adults. They know how to shake off the reality of the world and go into a make believe place, or at least a creative fantasy space. Isn't that what all artist and designers do?

As parents, we judge according to some imagined ideal of worthy activities and less worthy. We decree that screentime is time poorly spent, unimaginatively spent. Children however, don’t make such distinctions. They simply know what activities light their fire, and which don’t. Maybe it's not their imagination that is lacking at all during screentime....but ours!!!

Perhaps we need to look at this in a new way. Instead of lamenting that our kids are lost to us for those hours they get sucked into this really powerful flow/ creative place, maybe we ought to actually back off and let them be? What if we ask them why they love their games so much, what it makes them feel like, try to engage with the passion they feel about them.

What if, we made a point not to interrupt our children when they seem really ‘in the zone’ or ‘on fire’ or energized by their games?

What if, instead of tutting, and making them leave their games at a (to them) really crucial stage of gameplay, we let them eat or drink in front of the computer – even though we’d like to chat to them?

What if we didn’t take it personally when they play for hours at a time, ignoring us when we interrupt them with what feels to them to be ‘mindless chatter’, and actually recognise and respect that they are in a powerful state of flow?

What if we put our own ego and need for company aside and let them play when they are ‘in the zone’ – and use that time to do our own ‘flow’ activities.

And what if, we have more productive conversations instead about ‘flow’ with our children, about what it looks and feels like, and equally, about what it feels like when apathy and boredom have set in? 

What if we talked productively about learning when to walk away from an activity when we are no longer ‘in flow’ with it – about how destructive it feels when we’re no longer enjoying an activity because we’ve stayed too long with it? 

Isn’t that perhaps kinder than simply trying to control and portion our children’s computer time for them? Surely they’ll need to learn self-limits at some point in their lives – if we do this for them till adulthood, exactly when will they feel empowered enough to learn for themselves?

Maybe, by supporting our kids flow state activities, and fostering our own, instead of feeling rejection, judgement or resentment about it, we can feel happy for them, and enjoy those times when we're really connected and together - the family meals when everyone talks together, the spontaneous moments when we bond and grow and express our love and gratitude to have each other in our lives, and the times we can be in a state of flow together at the same time? I have realised lately how much more harmonious and loving everyone is to one another, how much more connected and fulfilled everyone feels when they are allowed whatever flow activities float their boat without judgement or bitterness.

Perhaps, if we parents can really see it for what it is - a positive flow state time of happiness, fun, and creativity - we can actually be closer as a family than if we fought and controlled and rationed and went 'against the flow'....

What do you think dear reader?

I love to hear your thoughts!


P.S. After happily being allowed to play Minecraft for the last two hours, Finn has just walked up to me, given me a kiss, and said "Wanna hang? I'd love to do something together with you mum, how about a game of chess?" I kid you not!!! :-)


  1. Great post Paula! I think you're right, we get hung up on our own interpretation of what's going on. This is all really helpful to me - I've had a change of attitude towards screentime with my teens too and blogged about it just recently here:

    I need to do a follow up about how it's going :)

  2. Ooh, off to go read it now! It's always nice to hear different perspectives on this whole issue of kids and computer time isn't it?

  3. Goodness, difficult one, I just wrote a long reply to Different drum's post, I struggle with this issue with my teen. In a nutshell, if screentime is limited, or even taken away....other stuff happens. Active stuff or creative stuff. He doesn't do gaming really but alot of tv film watching and facebook etc. I haven't got anything against it in moderation but the sheer volume of hours concerns me. I really hear what you say about the flow...and I also get what you say about our interpretation of what's good and bad, but I just can't be persuaded that sitting motionless for hours is a good thing for teenage tricky....thanks for writing this, very interesting...

  4. Winter looks unproductive... it's easy to think nothing is happening, no growth, no change...and yet, lots is happening under the surface..... I wonder if it's the same with those periods when our kids seem to be stagnating or spending time doing what we think of as repetitive, worthless etc etc... I don't know Henrietta - what do you think lovely? Could this be true?