“Scary” Screens?

scaryscreensI am constantly surprised by the number of people who are prejudiced against electronic screens (gaming consoles, TV, computer  etc).

Mind you, I probably shouldn’t be surprised, because I used to be one of them.

I used to see it as “less than”; as in, a less desirable use of my children’s time in comparison to, say, reading a book, or playing outside, or doing art & craft (the golden choices of childhood).

I used to fear that it would spin out of control if I let go of control.

I used to strictly limit my children’s “screen time” (often whilst using a computer myself), and it required an awful lot of negotiation (“If I use 5 minutes of my hour today, can I add 5 minutes to tomorrow’s time?” etc) and then I read the wonderful article on Sandra Dodd’s site, about the economics of restricting screen time and I started to think…..

And gradually, ever so gradually, I began to let go of my fears.

To trust that my children would be ok.

And to actually support them in their interests (yes, even if that interest is TV, or computer, or gaming), rather than trying to entice them to do something…. DIFFERENT.

Why is it that so many people worship books but fear screens?  Many of us use screens a lot in our own lives, but fear our children using them “too much”. Why are people so judgemental of children who are on screens “a lot”? Why do so many people put strict limits on screen time, but never think of limiting other activities such as book reading or playing outside? Why are people so quick to use words like “addictive” when talking about screens, but wouldn’t use it if speaking of a child who whiles away endless days reading novels? Why is it so rare to hear words such as  “wonderful” or “enjoyable” or “fascinating” in the same sentence as screens or gaming? Why is it that so many parents would be proud to announce that their child spent the whole morning reading a book, but would feel shame if someone found out their child spent the same amount of time “staring at a screen”? Why are we so afraid of screens when it comes to our children?

What are we afraid of?

I think I may have some clues to this strange phenomenon, because I’ve been in that place myself. I too used to be one of those parents who was prejudiced against and fearful of screens, although I didn’t tangibly recognise it as this. I remember having lots of strong feelings around the issue. I remember wishing they’d do something else. Anything else. I remember fearing that their lives were becoming unbalanced. I even remember (in all seriousness) wishing we could live on a desert island somewhere, with close friends and families, but no electronic media at all! Yes, seriously. I thought I wanted that.

I knew I felt tense about the screens issue. I was conscious of how much my children enjoyed their screen time (TV, Xbox, Computer etc)! But I also knew what most others thought of that. I also knew I felt somewhat embarrassed and self-conscious if people walked into our home and saw them having screen time “again”. (Actually, I still struggle with that sometimes!)

I used to be a “No TV for Kids” type of Mum and I was proud of it! When our first son was a toddler, I decided that he should be TV-free, and this lasted for a couple of years (I can hear all the anti-TV people cheering in the grandstands!). I did like some aspects of that lifestyle; however, my husband and I still used to watch TV in the evenings after our son was in bed, because we found it an enjoyable thing to do. In spite of this, I continued to see TV as a big scary NO for my son. Is that hypocritical? I know I felt somewhat guilty about it. I had a niggling feeling that I kept burying deep down inside, that we were living a double standard, waiting for our screen-free son to go to bed, so that we could kick back and enjoy some TV watching. I would sometimes allow myself to wonder what he thought of it as he was lying in his bed, or hopping up to go to the toilet, and seeing the TV on. Did he think it must be something that only adults “get to do”? Did this increase his desire to watch it, too, so he could be “grown up” like us?

I think there was an element of pride in me, too. “MY child doesn’t watch television. WE provide a stimulating environment. WE don’t rely on television as a babysitter.”

It is said that pride goes before the fall. I still remember the telling moment when my husband commented on the stress in the house on a particular day when we were trying to get ready to go somewhere, with a toddler or two under our feet, saying something like, “You know what? This tension and stress is probably more damaging that the TV would be!” And I realised he was right! I mean, I knew there were obviously more options than just putting the TV on to keep kids away, but his point was that we were getting upset with kids underfoot, while the TV sat in the other room like a silent unopened gift! I had been so against our child/ren watching the TV because I’d deemed it ”bad”, but I suddenly realised it could have a place after all! Of course, I limited it to “nice videos” and ABC TV only in the early days…. 🙂 I remember intentionally putting Playschool on, WANTING my son to watch it because I’d decided it was a good program!

Fast track a few years… I had 2 children in school, one very wild 3 year old, and a baby. Our  aerial had blown off the roof and we’d not bothered getting another one. We did have a TV though, and we used it for watching videos (yes, we actually let the kids watch videos too this time!). I used to restrict any morning viewing, and then at lunchtime I’d put a video on for my wild child, to try to keep him out of trouble so I could have a rest time with the baby. That seemed to work well. (I think this routine began the day that I came out from the bedroom after settling my baby to sleep, only to discover my 3yo sitting on a beanbag with his feet in the electric foot soaker, which he’d filled with water and plugged into the power point himself!!! We also got a safety switch on the electrical circuit that day!)

When we moved into a house that happened to have a TV aerial, we didn’t mind. We had finally begun to move past our previous judgemental attitudes towards screen time. We did enforce “Screen Free Sundays” for awhile, and we still had some residual, usually silent, negative thoughts towards screens, but for the most part, TV and other forms of “screens” (Xbox and computers) had become one of the resources in our house, amongst many other things. It has been quite a long journey to get to a place where screens are neither elevated or denigrated, and the decision to unschool our children has been instrumental in helping us get to this place. Screens are now just a tool for us to use as we see fit. I no longer fear their mutinous power. I now trust that my children (and I) are more powerful than any supposedly magnetic pull of electronic gadgetry. Yes, we are even more powerful than the advertising companies. We are quite capable of interpreting advertising, and critiquing its message, and we often have conversations about this kind of thing.

For those of you who are experiencing fears and judgements (or perhaps self-righteous pride like I did) regarding screens, I invite you to consider the possibility that your children are picking up the anti-screen vibe (or very clear message), and that it is possibly having a negative effect on them in one of these ways:

  • It could be causing them to view their own desire to engage with screen time as “bad”.  And if their desire is bad, then maybe THEY are bad too.
  • It may be causing your children to resent those who are allowed to use screens more than they are.
  • Another option (and one that my own children have been on the receiving end of) is that your anti-screen judgement may be causing your children to pass that same judgement on to others who use screens more than is considered ideal in your family.

What would happen if the TV or computer or gaming console wasn’t held out as a carrot on a stick, as a reward for having done something less desirable first? If it wasn’t given that much power by its “reward” status?

What would happen if screens weren’t seen as “less than”, but rather as simply another resource in the home?

What would happen if we could find another word to use instead of “watching”, which implies passivity?  When you watch TV, is your mind ever totally switched off? Perhaps you are engaging with the characters or plot, immersing yourself in the storyline; perhaps it’s connecting with something in your own life; perhaps you’re imagining yourself in the movie, or relating at some level to one of the characters or experiences ; perhaps you’re noticing something about the cinematography, or the characterisation or acting, or the costuming, or the way a scene is depicted. Or perhaps you’re just enjoying the experience of “losing yourself”; full immersion relaxation.

Perhaps it’s a documentary, and you’re being transported to a time or place you will never get to experience in “real life”.

Perhaps we’re better off referring to ourselves as “enjoying some TV time”. Because truly, it’s not just “watching”, it’s audio visual at the very least. And if we’re talking about computers or gaming consoles, it’s far from passive.

If you’re still finding yourself judging your child’s use of screens, or fearing that it’s “all they’ll ever do”, or just resenting it somehow, consider this.

There is a solution. But it requires something from you.

Instead of pointing the finger at your child, or at those “nasty screens”, have the courage to look within.

When our children are switched on to a screen, it can become easy for us to switch off to our children. This isn’t to say that we need to always watch every show with them, or sit beside them every time they’re engaged in some screen time. We do have our own interests to pursue. And we do have other things that beg our attention. But we can still do those things whilst staying connected in some way with our children’s screen experience. Hopefully we’ll be in the same room as them, enabling us to keep one eye on our child and the screen that has their attention, and another on what we’re wanting to do. It might mean occasionally commenting or asking a question. It might mean bringing them something nutritious to eat or drink. It might mean stopping for a brief snuggle. Or better yet, a long, lingering one. It might mean seeking out opportunities or products or books or games that support their interest. And it will, hopefully, sometimes involve watching and engaging with our children!

It’s not screens versus outdoor play, or screens versus art and craft, or screens versus anything else.

It’s screens with my presence versus screens in my absence, and with my judgement (even the covert type).

It’s connection that makes the difference.

I think it’s also really important to ensure that life is more exciting than TV; that the children aren’t engaging in screen time simply out of habit or boredom, because there’s nothing more interesting calling out to them. Screens are a totally valid resource, as one among many. But if the other options are static, never changing, hidden in cupboards, covered in dust, or simply not accessible due to us not helping our children engage with them (maybe they need us to drive them somewhere, or invite someone over, or play a game with them, or help them fix something that’s broken so they can use it again…..), then it’s understandable that our children will gravitate to the ever changing screen, rather than the never changing alternatives. Rather than feeding feelings of judgement towards our children’s choice of screens over other options, it is more helpful to engage with them in their screen activity, or invite them to do something else with us (the magic “let’s” word); to be truly present with them, and to have plenty of exciting options for them to engage with, in addition to screens. It is really important, however, that it doesn’t come across as “Why don’t you stop watching so much TV and do something INTERESTING for once!” We might not say those words, but it can come across that way to our children whether we intend it to or not. I think the secret here is not to always suggest something different, but to sometimes sit and watch with them, supporting them in their screen interests, and to sometimes offer alternative ideas, and invite them to explore the non-screen world with you.

In summary, the lessons I’ve learned (and keep on learning!) are:

Stop judging the box! It’s just a thing. An object.

Limits increase desire

Instead of disconnecting, consider… connecting (with your children)!

Be more interesting than the screen!

Just in case this blog post wasn’t long enough for you, and you’d like to read more, you could check out What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee. There are other books also, although I haven’t read any myself, because I usually find that they’re more relevant to parents of school children.

In view of the fact that the use of screens is very different for a school child (and it’s helpful to remember that all the anti-TV studies are based on children like this) and an unschooled child, I thoroughly recommend reading these web pages, because they are written from an unschooling perspective. In fact, I probably needn’t have written this blog post at all!

Sandra Dodd’s TV webpage

Arguments Against Arguments Against TV

TV and Other Addictions

If I Let Them, They’d Watch TV All Day Long

No Child Can Benefit from Watching all the TV They Want

How can TV in any Amount be OK?

There are Much Better Things they could do than Watch TV

My Values versus TV’s Values

Letting Go of the TV Controls

Other Comments About TV

Disclaimer: I still sometimes feel embarrassed if I think someone might be judging the children’s (or my) screen time, and in moments like that I don’t do my best parenting, because I am reacting to my fear and shame, rather than delighting in my children, and the choices we can freely make regarding how we spend our time. I know that in moments like this, the best results come when I am mindful of my own issues, aware of the child’s environment and whether I’ve been successfully strewing a path of wonderland before them, and choosing to delight in who my child is. Then I am free to consciously and joyfully engage in the screen time with my child, or delight in them choosing it for themselves, or suggest something different out of a place of joy rather than fear.