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Screentime revisited

Longtime readers of my blog know that I am not a convert to the belief that unlimited screentime is fine for kids. There are plenty of homeschoolers who do, in fact, believe this, and they have their arguments. In this case, I will respectfully agree to disagree.

I had no opinions about kids and TV, really, until I had my son. One night, while I nursed my baby, my husband and I were watching our then-traditional Thursday night TV: Seinfeld, Friends, and ER. Our son was young, probably only a couple of months old, but he was alert, interested in the world. And he was definitely interested in that TV. He kept popping off to watch it, mesmerized.

I reacted as I react to almost everything: research.

At that point, not a lot of good research had been done, but what had been done seemed clear enough to me: Kids who watched a lot of TV had lower IQs, lower grades in school, lower attention spans, higher body fat.

Because he was the first, it was an easy choice. We turned off the TV. Until he was about 4, we watched almost no video at all, except the occasional Muzzy when I still was deluded enough to think that we’d all become fluent Spanish speakers.

Our second child came into a house with no TV. But after it was clear that she was a different sort of child, and after it was clear that preschool, then kindergarten, were just not going to work for her, I begged my sisters, who had not limited screentime: “Please, tell me what’s good!”

I hadn’t paid any attention to kids’ media, and I needed a break. I needed that electronic babysitter.

In other words, I gave in a bit in terms of screentime. But in reality, my kids went from waaaay weird (no screentime) to pretty darn weird (up to 1 hour a day so Mommy could sit in her office and type her brains out).

Meanwhile, the digital world became more enticing, and the research became more clear:

Too much screen-watching, no matter what type of screen it is, is not completely healthy for your child.

The unhealthy things are obvious:

  • Kids who watch a lot of TV and use a lot of video games are more likely to be obese and have the host of health problems to go along with that.
  • Kids who have a lot of screentime are more likely to have low IQs and low grades in school.
  • Kids who have a lot of screentime, especially unmonitored screentime, are more likely to be psychologically damaged, with their psyches, in one report I heard on the radio, similar to those of kids who grow up in war zones.
  • Screentime promotes ADHD-like behaviors: short attention span, excitement-seeking, lower tolerance for the slow-moving parts of life.

Let’s face it: TV is largely dumb, violent, sexist, and passive, reducing your kid to a passenger in a car that is totally out of control. Many video games, even the ones made for kids, are much the same.

But then there’s the other side. My husband and I spend much of our professional lives “online.” We use computers for our work. We are hooked into various types of media to give us news that feeds our work, networks that feed our professional lives, and yes, lots of dumb stuff. But we use the dumb stuff wisely: I am very good about being professional with Facebook, for example. I have “friended” a number of present and past real-world friends, but FB is mainly a way for me to receive news from organizations that I care about.

And there’s also the other side of the research: Yes, many kids who OD on screentime are freaked-out fat kids, but many of them also benefit:

  • Video games can stimulate reflexes and hand-eye coordination.
  • The decision-making skills of video game users seem to be quicker.

I think that as parents, our decision-making comes down to the same thing it always does: What are our values?

My husband and I met in Silicon Valley, working at a computer company. We have known many people who have spent way too much time in front of screens. Those people show the effects: They are largely obese (though sometimes unhealthily skinny), they lack social skills, they often have no life outside of the one they live online. My husband and I value the “real” world and want our kids to be healthy and successful in it. We want them to have interests outside of the world in their computers. We want them to be able to chat in real life with their grandmas as well as with the geeky kid next to them in an Internet cafe in Thailand.

We also want them to make up their own minds as to what is right, what is valuable, what is good. TV and increasingly, the Internet are attempting to take over people’s decision-making abilities. TV has largely succeeded with a segment of our population. Now it’s on to the Internet. Do you want someone else to tell your child what is good and right?

So we find ourselves walking that line: Yes, our kids use computers. Computers are tools, and why would you deny a child a hammer if what he really needs is to pound in a nail?

But no, we don’t think that unbounded screentime is good for anyone (not even adults). And we do believe that parents have the inescapable role as mentor and guide for their children. (In other words, even if you don’t serve as a role model for your kids, you’re serving as a role model for your kids. Get used to it, and decide to live the life that you want model for them.)

I have strong TV memories from my childhood: I’m from a family of 5 kids, with scientist parents. They decided that we could have one “TV night,” and that we would vote on what night that would be.

TV night was a treat for us! We would buy pop (Pepsi and Sprite), and pop some popcorn. We’d line up on the naugahyde couch (green, of course) to watch Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy. The shows didn’t really matter. The lesson we learned from this exercise was that TV — screentime — was a treat. The real world would still be out there, and we had to be ready to meet it.

But it was fine, about once a week, to sit back on that shiny, sticky surface, and enjoy what we knew was just entertainment.

Posted in Culture, Education, Parenting.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Summer screen time – Avant Parenting linked to this post on July 24, 2011

    […] screen time We’ve always been pretty restrictive of screen time for our kids. The first studies showing the ill effects of screen time were just coming out when my son was a […]

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