NS February 2nd, 2010
Is a lot of ‘screen time’ for kids really as horrific as people like to make out? Are children rotting their brains, giving themselves virtual lobotomies, by watching television, playing video games, working on computers and using hand-held music devices/e-readers/mobile phones? A recent report showed that children in the US spend nearly eight hours per day consuming media — nearly as long as the average adult spends at work. I’m sure statistics are similar for children in the UK. This has really freaked some people out. It used to freak me out. I felt (and still feel) guilty for the amount of time The Noble Child spends staring at a screen. But increasingly, I’m asking myself why children consuming media is considered such an atrocity and why we are so panicked about it.
Full disclosure: my three-year-old watches a couple hours of television a day. She knows how to play simple games aimed at pre-schoolers on the computer. She can take photos on our digital camera. She instinctively knew how to use an iPhone when first exposed to one, with little explanation or demonstration. She could double-click and click-and-drag by the time she was two years old. The girl is tech-savvy. But so are her parents. My husband’s career is in computers. We are both active members of online communities; he on his sports forums and I with the blogosphere and Twitter. We both have iPhones. We both like to watch films and a few select TV shows. We stream videos. We take photos and upload them. We read a lot of our news on the computer screen, not from a newspaper spread over the breakfast table (though I do buy a broadsheet a couple times a week — nothing beats the weekend papers in bed). We’re fully linked in, wired up and logged on. So why wouldn’t our daughter (and eventually our son, too) be?
If that’s ALL she did then, yes, it would undoubtedly be unhealthy. If she lacked imagination, social interaction, literacy and communication skills or physical energy then, yes, I would be concerned. But she doesn’t. She is unimaginably sociable, friendly, outgoing, polite, empathetic and energetic. She can watch Finding Nemo contentedly but then jump up (sometimes in the middle of it) and want to play Bears or Hot Lava or Horsey Ride. She’s plainly thriving and developing at a normal pace. So the more I hear and read about the hysteria and see chests being beaten and hair being torn out by guilt-inflicted parents and drama-loving media sources, the more I think we’re blowing this all out of proportion. We all know that “studies say” and “experts suggest” that children have limited screen time, but what is the impetus for all these studies being conducted? Why the money, time and resources spent on finding out whether something that is unavoidably a part of our lives, and our kids’ lives, should be kept away from them?
The first response is to say they are being done for legitimate scientific and social purposes, to ensure that consuming all this new media will not have detrimental effects on us (which is a legitimate concern, certainly), but I have to wonder if at least some of this concern stems from the fact that advances in technology and our lifestyles have changed so rapidly in the last 10-20 years, leaving us little time to grow accustomed to it gradually, that our heads are left spinning, unsure how to process all of the information, choices and consequences. I also wonder if it’s something every generation does, where those who were once young and hip all of a sudden realise that they have grown older and a new modernity has set in, one which vastly influences the way they, and particularly their children, live their lives and spend their time. Often, it is our children who are least scared of these changes and we are the ones left scratching our heads and muttering phrases like “Back in my day…” while fixing whatever newfangled invention is ‘taking over the youth’ with a suspicious stare.
Rock music used to be considered the devil incarnate. Then it was films and TV. Then it was rap music and racy ads. Then it was video games. Now it’s mobile phones and computers. Different decade, same ol’ worries. Old/familiar = good, virtuous; Young/new = scary, unknown.
I saw a poll recently (can’t remember where or I’d link) where parents were asked how much TV their kids actually watched versus how much they told other people their kids watched and the discrepancies were not marginal. More than three-quarters said they felt their children watched too much television but, when asked, most halved that time. So are kids consuming too much media or are we just making each other feel guilty about it by under-reporting and hiding it because we don’t fully understand it? Is this just one more way in which parents are blamed for not being perfect, or are the ‘experts’ right to caution us about the effects of the Age of Tech?
I haven’t fully made up my mind yet. I vacillate between beating myself up and trying to curtail media usage to embracing it and reminding myself that my children are well-rounded, loved and properly cared for, regardless of ‘screen time.’ After all, you wouldn’t be reading this post if it wasn’t for CBeebies. I get time to ponder and write (which makes me a better person and mother) and my children learn yoga poses from cute little animated figures, set to soothing music and chattering laughter. Is that really so bad?