Lowering the Barrier

Making programming (everything) more accessible

11 Mar 2021

How We Spend Our Time

Some school systems and IT providers have blocked Replit because it’s distracting. That feels short-sighted to me. Most of the internet pushes content to passive consumers. Instead of mindlessly scrolling, people build on Replit. Time spent building is time well spent, even if it is in front of a screen.

I’m also talking my book here. What do I do in real life, with my own kids?

A year ago, when our public schools closed and started teaching remotely, our kids saw the opportunity of a lifetime: their parents and teachers were telling them to use a computer every day. Before that, in our house at least, the computer was something you might be able to catch a few minutes on once in a while. Now there were designated times that everyone was supposed to be on one.

Anyone who has spent any significant part of their day on video calls may find this surprising, but our kids asked for even more time on the computer outside of their school meetings. We started holding Technology Time™ after lunch. You had to read or play education games for 20 minutes, then you could do whatever you wanted.

By summer, this had devolved into spending an hour or more after lunch watching YouTube. Once school started again in the fall we were able to cut back to having Technology Time™ on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Getting the kids to close their Chromebooks could be a battle and, if it had been an especially frazzling day, we’d leave them watching YouTube for well over an hour. Sometimes the sun would set and they’d be sitting in the dusk.

Eventually everyone was having a hard enough time leaving any screen that we had to go cold turkey for a week. No TV. No computers. We had some cranky afternoons. But it got to the point where we could have a conversation at the dinner table together. We’ve re-allowed TV but have continued to say no to Technology Time™. We treat playing music on the computer and dancing in the living room as an off-balance-sheet activity.

I go through similar booms and busts in my own screen time. Right now I’m logged out of email and slack on my phone, and have used parental controls to disable the browser as well. I have an /etc/hosts file on my computer that redirects most distracting sites to localhost, so they won’t load for me. Eventually a project or an on-call rotation or a “could you look this up” question will come along, I’ll relax my restrictions, keep them relaxed longer than I intended, then finally put them back into place.

So I get banning. Banning works. To a degree. Until people find the workaround.

But banning cuts out too much. Most of the good ideas that have come my way in this life have come from reading on the internet. Most all of that reading was a waste of time. Most all of it was an escape from a mundane present day. The benefits have far outweighed the “wasted” time though.

If I could zero in on a behavior to cut out, it’d be when I open a browser seeking interruption or distraction. When I come to a computer with purpose, good things happen. The past few weeks I’ve started my mornings with the computer off, sitting in front of a piece of paper. I write down everything that’s on my mind and figure out what I’m going to focus on and what I’m going to let go. When I open my laptop, I make myself write something before going on to all the stuff that needs doing. Today, this post is that something.

Parents, I suspect, have a tendency to punish their own sins harshly in their children. If we don’t trust ourselves with the internet, we definitely won’t trust our kids with it.

The answer, of course, is to teach ourselves and our kids how to use computers wisely. That’s hard work. It’s easier to either say no outright or to give in to scrolling and watching without end. When I find the time to work on an Arduino project with my kids (or, soon, teach them Kaboom), it feels good all around. Back before I joined Replit I would use it in the evenings to actually work on my side projects instead of daydreaming about them. Working up the energy to build is hard enough in this world. Banning the tools to build makes you ask, why bother? Schools, parents, most everyone really, should be in the business of encouraging creation, not discouraging it.