Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thoughts on the presence of Great Glowing Boxes in the lives of children

The presence of TV/handheld video games is not a new thing in the lives of children, but it has become more prevalent in the last decade than it was when I was growing up. Now we have TV in our cars, on airplanes, even in shopping carts(1), in addition to the traditional TV that people have in their living rooms and even in their bedrooms. As Americans increase their screen time with TV, computer, smartphones, and gaming consoles, obesity rates have skyrocketed, dragging kids along for the ride. The constant bombardment doesn't just contribute to a lack of physical activity, but mental activity as well. Kids spend so much time texting that they have apparently forgotten how to use proper grammar in school papers (2). The brain-drain starts young- Baby Einstein and other companies market television shows to infants, and there are dozens of apps available for whatever smartphone platform you might have that also cater to babies and toddlers. Have we, as a society, become so entrenched and addicted to the Great Glowing Box that we've forgotten what it means to entertain ourselves, and let our children entertain themselves? What are we doing to their tender, developing minds?

I am coming to this from a somewhat "unplugged" perspective. Our car does not have a DVD player (nor do we plan to ever own one with a DVD player). We have one TV, which resides in our living room, and we do not have cable. In fact, we only turn on the TV to watch movies a few times a week and to watch football in its season. C and I joined the 21st century this week and got smartphones (and yeah, I did get the MyTouch! SQUEE!). J has only in the last month even gotten to play a game on a smartphone, and I think that's pretty great. I would have liked to keep him naive to them longer, but I don't think we're hurting him by letting him play a few minutes every couple days with his "finger drawing game." He loves to watch me play Angry Birds, and he gets to play on occasion (his screen time for games is 10 minutes per day). At 4 years old, he does not know how to use a computer mouse, so no computer games for him. He does have a Spiderman laptop with spelling/letter games on it, but he doesn't use it much.  As far as TV goes we let him watch movies starting around age 2, and he gets to watch cartoons at daycare once in a while (he only goes 1 day a week, and they rarely watch anything). He and C sometimes watch the Fairly Odd Parents on Netflix streaming, but that's pretty much it. J was occasionally exposed to TV (mostly for Broncos games) as a baby but we never sat him down with the intent that he should watch something. J is allowed to watch one movie per day (during the week), but almost never actually watches one every day. A movie may also only be a couple episodes of Franklin or whatever other show he picked out at the library that week, and generally is about 30-90 minutes. He does not get to watch movies while L is awake in order to minimize her exposure, and his total screen time averages less than 1 hour total per day, versus the national average of THREE (3). I will confess that when I am home alone with him, I am more likely to turn on an episode of Fraggle Rock or Bob the Builder to keep him out of my hair while I am cooking than C is, but since C is the stay-at-home parent in our house, J doesn't get much TV/movies. Our goal is that L will also be minimally exposed to TV, etc until she is two, and then have the same limits that J does.

We did once get a Grocery Cart TV at the store (I didn't have the baby with me, so it was doable, since they have nowhere to strap an infant) (1). It was the worst experience I've ever had in a grocery store. The damn cart not only had *no* power-off button, but I had my very own screen. Yeah. J and I both had screens to watch on the cart, and mine had no volume control. It kept yapping to me about how great it was (and gave me recipes and stuff), and I was disgusted. J enjoyed his cartoons (though it wasn't one he'd seen before, and he was a little confused) but he agreed that it was really not that great and he wished that the button on the steering wheel beeped like a horn like the other car-carts. When we go in now we avoid those carts, and J doesn't mind one bit. He likes the non-computerized ones better, and he comes up with some great scenarios while he's "driving" around and enjoying his free cookie. I know there are some people that enjoy these things, and from one particular blog post it seems that the author doesn't really like actually making sure her child behaves, so she plunks her down in front of the TV so she could enjoy the time without dealing with the bratty kid in a store (5). Granted, I don't know this particular child, but I'm going to guess that she's nothing special in terms of being out of control, and is probably just a normal kid who doesn't know how to entertain herself.

TV in the car is a little bit of a touchy subject. I have family members who swear that having the DVD player has saved them on long, cross-country hauls with kids in tow, hours of nonstop "are we there yet?" and "I have to pee!" and backseat fights. I have held my tongue and quietly wondered what happened to listening to audiobooks, or reading to ourselves, or playing games like "I spy" and "20 questions." I'm sure there were times when my siblings and I poked and prodded each other, but that's all part of growing up and learning to get along. I know that when I was about 11 or so my sister and I made up our own Mad-Libs and my dad told us to stop, because we were being inappropriate with them (heehee). Of course, this was on a 20+ hour trip to Washington from Colorado and I think we'd been getting louder and more obnoxious over the course of a couple hours, but rather than getting really angry, he challenged us to look outside and see if we could find any pronghorns. Thanks to my dad and his love of the outdoors, I have a comprehensive knowledge of various wild ungulates and have seen more than a few while gazing outside (we are trying to teach J about these as well). Landscapes flashing by were always a great way to drift off into my own thoughts, allowing my mind to wander. As an adult, it saddens me a little every time I see cars drive past with a movie on. I often wonder if they are going on a long trip or not. If so, I wonder if they are watching movies for the whole trip or just one a day. If not, are their children so badly behaved that they simply must have a screen in front of them so they will shut up and stop trying to kill each other? Or do the parents just not want to deal with them?

We live about 1 1/2 hours from C's parents, and an hour from C's brother. We visit them all fairly frequently, so longish car trips are not unheard of in our family. We also make an annual trek for the family camping trip, which is anywhere from 2 to 5 hours away. J looks out the window or looks at a book, or takes a nap on these trips. He recently developed a love for podcasts (specifically Aaron's World, which is pretty awesome, and Born to Do Science) so we often listen to those. We also have some CDs for him that aren't grating on the adults in the car. There is simply no need for us to have a TV to keep him entertained. Maybe that's part of the problem- we are looking at our children as "beings that need to be entertained" and not "beings capable of creating their own entertainment." Now that we have two kids, J and L have a grand time making faces and talking to each other and trying to get each other to giggle. They entertain each other, and when L falls asleep, J goes back to looking for cows or clouds shaped like fish or checking to see if he can find any cool trucks. Sometimes he looks at a book or two, and sometimes he naps. He does normal 4-year-old-boy things, too, like ask if we're there yet.

I don't know what all this screen time will do to our children. I think it will cause their reading comprehension to decrease (as has already been shown). I know I feel dumber, more depressed, and less motivated if I spend hours playing games or watching movies rather than reading or being active.  I think the answer is that we, as a culture, need to start looking for ways to teach our children to seek out entertainment, and use their imaginations, rather than just turning on the TV or handing them an iPad or smartphone and viewing them as people who need to be entertained. We have raised our son to love books, and so far his baby sister seems to be just as fascinated with them as he was at her age. Like most parents, C and I do the best we can, and we tend to think that we are doing better than average in raising our children. We get compliments when we are out with our kids based on their behavior, so I like to think that it's not all in my head.

What non-Great Glowing Box activities do you and your children enjoy?


1. Grocery Cart TV (free in my local grocery stores)



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