Where to Draw the Digital Lines?

February 29, 2012

Like Mother, Like Daughter

So, what really happens in a house with “No TV”?

Whenever my children don’t have something in particular to do, or I haven’t come up with something to occupy them, they often slink off and click on some sort of screen.  We don’t have cable or network TV, so they can’t watch that, but since they are coming of age in a world of digital media, they have learned how to use the laptops and iPods in the house to tap into an endless supply of kids’ movies and episodes of Nickelodeon.  They will essentially watch these until I force them to stop.

Like most parents, my husband and I think of ourselves as prudent about things like bedtime, healthy family dinners, and homework. Our kids do chores, clean their rooms, and say please and thank you. Although we are perfectly capable of saying “no”, we are often flummoxed by the collision between rapid technological development and our kids’ development.  We constantly improvise new rules, which we break and rewrite as our girls get older and the digital world grows to meet them. This week we are enforcing a two-hour per week limit, which is going OK, except everybody’s hours were burned through by Tuesday, and a long weekend of negotiation is ahead.

Despite my naïve dreams of raising little Leonardos who would spend their every free minute painting, inventing, composing symphonies and discovering the secrets of the universe, my girls have turned out to be like most Americans: in love with screens.

It’s not that I’m worried about their safety per se, as I am comfortable enforcing internet safety protocols for kids.  I teach them what they can and can not do, and then I check up on them.  I know their passwords and regularly check the history on their browsers after they have been online.  They do not (yet) have Facebook or Tumblr.  Grace has started, and then abandoned, three blogs, and I’ve been heavily involved in all three.  I can say with relative confidence that most of what they are looking at, during all those hours of screentime, is relatively wholesome.

My dilemma?  I just wish that real life could compete more forcefully with the digital world without my having to police my kids’ screen time and choices so aggressively. How do I encourage them to choose reality — cooking, reading, sports, bikes, art, music, or even plain old board games — over the lure of computer games and junky TV?   We observe  Screen-Free Week each year in April, but that week is the exception that proves the rule:  the rest of the time, we’re rarely unplugged.

When our girls were very tiny, they saw no screens at all.  When they were in preschool, we introduced a few well-used videotapes of Disney movies, and infrequent doses of educational cartoons.  But they are big kids now, ages 10 and 13, and much more aware of the flickering digital worlds that await their eyes. Even their social time unfolds in front of screens: when they hang out with their friends, they giggle over goofy YouTube videos of cats falling off of chairs or appearing to speak while they meow.

As their parents, we are hardly different.  No kitty cat videos, but we, too, forward our friends links to songs, blogs, articles, and videos. My husband worries that he watches more Sci-Fi than he feels he should, so he is constantly finding ways to limit his own intake as though he’s on an eternal diet. I don’t watch more than an hour or so of TV per week, but I spend an awful lot of time — probably far too much — reading, writing, working, or learning with a computer on my lap or my iPhone in my hand.  I’ve gotten  complacent in my own hypocrisy.

As a recent New York Times article about the shift from viewing on televisions to viewing on computers revealed, my family is by no means alone in trading in our TV for — well — more TV.  According to this article, Americans watch an average of 4 hours and 39 minutes per day, which adds up to nearly a day and a half of every week.

(I will pause while you take that in.)

The giant time-suck of TV was not the subject of this article.  Instead, the piece was about the fact that increasingly, those hours are spent not in front of a television, but in front of computer screens, where kids and adults do everything else: pay bills, listen to music and audiobooks, read novels and newspapers, write, compose music, and create art. The lines between entertainment, work, communication, and creative expression have increasingly blurred.

As an idealistic young parent, I was insistent that my children would not waste their young lives glued to screens, and if I had a baby now, I like to believe I would still follow the guidelines of the Academy of American Pediatrics and keep my infant away from videos.  We banished cable TV early on, but PBS.org children’s programming quickly became our gateway drug: all that well-crafted educational content seemed so harmless.  Eventually my younger daughter’s affection for old episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess, (downloaded onto her dad’s iPod) led her to a burgeoning interest in Greek Mythology.  Or at least this is what I told myself as she asked for more, more, and more.

We kept our kids away from computer games as long as we could. When we walked past GameStop, I would quicken my pace, somehow managing to convince my daughters that the store was not for them.  But when my older daughter took a school trip in the fall of her seventh grade year, she informed me angrily that every other child in her class had spent the four-hour bus ride from New York to Boston playing games on their iPods and cellphones.  How could I be so draconian, forcing her to stare out the window while everybody else was playing (and bonding over) Angry Birds and Skyburger?

When I was a kid in the woods of Upstate New York, gazing out the window was the only available entertainment on long car trips (that, and pestering my younger sister Gaela.)  When we turned on the television in the 70’s, there were only four channels, and just after midnight, each of them played the national anthem and then went to snow. On Sundays after the miracle of Soul Train, there was nothing but golf on TV.  During the long months of the Watergate hearings, every channel showed old men mumbling boringly into microphones.  Our favorite shows were on once a week, not 24/7 on demand.  These sorts of programming choices drove an entire generation of children outdoors to play.  Since we had no cable, and MTV had not yet been invented, television pretty much limited itself.

And back then, nobody in their right mind would “play” with a computer. The TRS-80’s in our school were good only for typing class. I don’t think I even saw a movie until I was six years old, and I was fifteen before I got a Walkman.  When I start ranting on these topics to my children, they look at me with pity and dismay; I am describing a miserable existence impossibly far from their imaginations. Clearly, my own childhood left me ill-prepared to set healthy limits for my kids where screens are concerned.

But if four-and-a-half hours per day is now in fact our cultural norm, I’d rather not just go with the flow.  My friends with children — themselves all quite thoughtful, terrific parents — also feel at sea with rules about screens, and thus are of little help to me. I have heard my fellow parents rationalize intakes from zero minutes to dozens of hours per week. Nearly every family I know feels their family’s digital diet to be relatively wholesome, if perhaps a bit on the heavy side, no matter how many hours are actually being watched.  Some parents, when faced with a child who truly can’t pull herself away from a screen, will admit that it feels like an addiction.  The rest of us just nag a lot.

Some families I know have enormous screens permanently switched on in their living rooms, and children who play every computer game known to boy- and girl-kind. Others keep their kids off screens, tech-vegans in a world of digital double bacon cheeseburgers. But the seriously unplugged kids I know are all younger than mine, and I wonder how long their parents can hold the line as their children spend more time in what we like to call the real world — a world that increasingly unfolds in cyberspace.

In fact, all of the kids I know, even the ones who attend funky Waldorf schools and off-the-grid summer camps, eventually end up more or less plugged in by high school, and begging, sneaking, or turning on technological devices more frequently than their parents wished they would.

There is of course a “but” in this rant.  As my children get older, and we’re all spending more time online, I am also beginning to realize that not all of technology is corrosive, and plenty of it is downright useful, fascinating, and transformative.

For example, how did I live without this:


or this:


or this:


The digital world is just like the real world, with its pockets of vice and virtue, and a whole lot of highly diverting work, entertainment, conversation, art, fluff and nonsense in between.  So it’s not just how much they watch, but what they are doing that I have to consider.  There are simply hundreds of decisions we have to make if it’s not going to be a simple On/Off decision of World vs. World 2.0

Those who read this piece will certainly have their own views on my pesky first-world problem, telling me that we are too lax or too stringent with what we’ve decided about technology and our kids.  Weirdly enough, they will both be right.  As a culture — even as thoughtful, caring parents — we’re simply all over the map.  In this shifting New Media world, it’s become so much more complicated than I ever thought possible to draw the right digital line between treasure and trash.

For screens now are the portals not just to TV, but to nearly everything we do, including composing, inventing, and discovering the mysteries of the universe.  Sometimes I think that if Leonardo himself were alive today, he just might be the most wired of us all.

Kristen @ Motherese March 1, 2012 at 4:30 pm

I was just talking about this with a friend of mine whose dad had just criticized her for too often turning to the “electronic babysitter.” (Ouch.)

Our kids (4, 2, and 1) watch TV, though for now it’s really only Sprout and Nick Jr. How much depends on who’s sick, what the weather’s like, how my patience is doing. We tend to be of the “everything in moderation” school of parenting and there does seem to be a just-right point where my kids and screen-time is concerned: I’m okay with some, but I always come to regret the too much when they haven’t had the chance they need to run and play off all of their energy. I can only imagine the ways in which this question will become more complicated when they get older and start using computers and other iThings.

Launa March 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm

And some of those things you’ll disagree over haven’t yet been invented!

Robin March 4, 2012 at 12:49 pm

We have a rule in the house, that we share the tv. So, we rotate who gets to pick the show. Consequently, we watch a healthy number of documentaries, from the Aztecs, to Jamestown, to Lewis & Clark. A fair amount of what we watch is educational, yes, even the Super Bowl is educational, because it’s how you watch tv as a family. We also spend hour for hour reading together as a family. We find ourselves watching lots of tween shows from Australia through Netflix. The teens aren’t nearly as cheeky as American teens. When Kate’s friends come over, they are confused by why we don’t permit her to watch Disney sit-coms, I suppose those are our parental controls.

Launa March 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Australia! Who knew. My friend Susan will be grateful to know this. I might borrow your rules!

M K Countryman March 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm

This topic has tugged at me since before my kids were born. And I can write no where near as articulately as you have here in the dilema.

Sometimes I wonder if I should just give up the battle. No one else really fights it , it seems. Especially as they are getting older. (11,9, and 6 years) . But I do. I nag some. But we try to talk about it. Yes, there are many, many good things as you mentioned. We talk about healthy media choices. For example, my eleven year old loves music, and she spends a lot of time looking at videos and finding new music. But she also prints out lyrics, sings all the time, tries to make her own videos. I think it helps her, enhances her real world experience.

My son, on the other hand, plays these stupid time waster video games whenever he has the chance. I tell them, if you are simply pushing buttons without having to think, its a waste of time. He then will try to change to computer programmiing or something just to appease me.

Finally, I talk of vistas a lot. I will say I don’t care how good it is for you, all people, especially kids, need to see vistas, not screens. It has been proven (whatever, but I’ll take it) that teens brains are not developing as fully because they don’t see enough vistas. We talk about this.

In the end, I can’t police them. I can only try to share information and let them know how we feel and what we know. They know they are more limited than most kids, but I think they are learning to make good decisions.

One of my kids said to me, “We are not the video game, screen type of family, right? We are the family that goes on bike rides and walks together and plays old fashioned games, right?”

I chalked that up as a win. Thanks for the essay. I love it.

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