A reader called me recently to discuss my approach to screen time. She found it fascinating that I am so strongly pro freedom, and yet strongly against unlimited screen time for my son.
How we do screen time: We don't own a television, but we do own computers, iphones, and an ipad. Occasionally, maybe once a week, we watch documentaries on our computers or the ipad. On the full moons we watch a fiction movie. We have educational games on the ipad that are played sporadically, maybe once a month.
This arrangement, for my family at this time, is quite simply not a problem. It's not a problem for me; it's not a problem for Tom, and it's not a problem for Anders. So first, I never really thought very much about the unlimited television question because there was just no problem that needed to be solved.
But my reader asked me to consider: Should Anders be watching more television? Is he being deprived of valuable life experiences? Have I poisoned him against television by reading to him chapters from Remotely Controlled and Living Outside the Box and explaining to him that television is a drug to be used with care? Have I deprived him of making his own conclusions about television by helping him draw the connection between his ability to pay attention to his math and the amount of television he watches? Isn't it controlling and therefore against my philosophy to say to Anders, "I notice you have been watching television for over an hour now, and I am wondering if you want to do something else?"
My first response is that I don't believe in biting my tongue and taking a deep breath when my son is doing something that makes me uncomfortable. Because my needs matter too. When Anders was two he liked to climb very high and, though he never fell or even seemed unsafe, I would sometimes get uncomfortable and ask him to come down. "Anders, I am sure you are safe up there, but the stress in my body is so intense right now, I can hardly handle it. I feel so much fear I might start crying. I am wondering if you would be willing to come down?" He always came down – because my needs matter to him. I think that's wonderful. I think this negotiation of needs is the dance of healthy human relationships.
Because here's the thing: Bite your tongue all you want, if your veins are coursing with stress hormones, those are going to affect the people around you. Idealize that away all you want, it's a fact of human nature. (Presented compellingly in the book Connected by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler.) The fact that anxiety felt by one family member will eventually most likely be felt by all family members for one reason or another is also written about in Bowen's work on family systems theory. These facts should never be used as control mechanisms, but between respectful people who have a healthy relationship – I need to know when what I am doing is stressing you out because your stress is going to get passed around to every member of our household.
I love NVC, but I don't buy into the idea that, "We are not responsible for other people's feeling's at all." There's just no common sense there. It may be a good approach to offenses caused by strangers or to unhealthy relationships, but in close, healthy relationship, I think it is more true and more helpful to believe that, "It takes two to tango." In our family, we consider all problems we have relationship problems for both of us to solve together. You're insecure? Yes, you need to take responsibility and do what you can do to solve that problem, but because we are married, it's my problem too. You're wanting to numb out into a drug? That's definitely a problem you need to look into, but because I am your mother, that's a problem I will look into too. You needs matter to me; let's solve this together.
This was one of the most interesting things I learned in marriage. Before I met Tom I lived by myself and I had no problems with myself so ... there just wasn't a lot of drama there. Then Tom moved in and suddenly I close all the cupboards too loudly and my desk is too messy. Suddenly, I had problems. Or rather we had problems. It wasn't my job to placate Tom by training myself to be quieter and neater, and it wasn't Tom's job to accept me for who I am and deal with his feelings on his own; it was our job to be sensitive to one another, accept one another, and give each other gifts.
When I peruse the unlimited screen time approach to television and video games, I find a lot of it disrespectful to parents, to their needs and discomforts. I find that the abstract ideal of freedom is presented as more important than creating a relationship between the parent and child that works for both of them. There is no right answer here. There is no "should" when it comes to how I keep my desk. There is only what works for me and what doesn't and what works for other members of my household and what doesn't. In a household focused on healthy relationships, everyones needs matter, even their irrational ones.
But I don't think my discomfort around television and video games is irrational. There is a reason parents feel instinctively worried when they see their child watching television or playing video games, because no matter how hard you try to tell yourself it's okay, deep down, you know your kid is on drugs. Meth to be specific. Television and video games are in the same addictive category as meth.
"There are few things ever dreamed of, smoked, or injected that have as addictive an effect on our brains as technology. This is how our devices keep us captive and always coming back for more. The definitive Internet act of our times is a perfect metaphor for the promise of reward: We search. And we search. And we search some more, clicking that mouse like – well, like a rat in a cage seeking another "hit," looking for that elusive reward that will finally feel like enough.... Computer and video game designers intentionally manipulate the reward system to keep players hooked. The promise that the next level or big win could happen at any time is what makes a game so compelling. It's also what makes a game so hard to quit. One study found that playing a video game led to dopamine increases equivalent to amphetamine use – and it's this dopamine rush that makes both so addictive. (Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. in The Willpower Instinct: How Self Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.)
"Television is unique, the perfect medium to produce strong rewards for paying attention to something. So what is so powerful about this reward? Compared to the pace with which real life unfolds and is experienced by young children, television portrays life with the fast-forward button fully pressed. Rapidly changing images, scenery and events, and high-fidelity sounds are overly stimulating and, of course, extremely interesting. Once you are used to food with monosodium glutamate flavour enhancer, real food doesn't taste as interesting. Television is the flavour enhancer of the audiovisual world. Nothing in real life is comparable to this. Television overpays the young child to pay attention to it, and in so doing it seems to physically spoil and damage his attention circuits. In effect, television corrupts the reward system that enables us to pay attention to other things in life." (Dr. Aric Sigman, Remotely Controlled: How Television Is Damaging Our Lives).
Our ability to pay attention is our life. Our ability to focus and control what we pay attention to is consciousness. To do a drug that damages your ability to pay attention is risking your ability to be consciously alive. That is why there is a direct correlation between how much television children watch and ADHD, among other things.
"Children who watch television at ages one and three have a significantly increased risk of developing such attentional problems by the time they are seven. For every hour of television a child watches per day, there is a nine per cent increase in attentional damage. The scientists suggest that their findings may actually be an understatement of the risks to children. They speculate that even if there is some educational benefit to be had from the actual programmes watched, this benefit may have covered up the even greater damage to the child's attentional systems that would occur if they watched programmes that had little educational benefit for them." (Sigman)
"A 26 year study of the 'Association Between Child and Adolescent Television Viewing and Adult Health' was recently published in the medical journal The Lancet, involving 1,000 children born in 1972-73. It found that children who watched more than two hours of television a day between the ages of five and fifteen suffered serious health risks many years later, at the age of 26. The study concluded that 15 per cent of cases of raised blood cholesterol, 17 per cent of obesity, 17 per cent of smoking and 15 per cent of bad cardiovascular fitness were linked to the television viewing that took place years before when the adults were children. This link remained, irresponsive of other factors such as social background, body mass index at age five, parents' BMI, parental smoking and how physically active the children were by the age of 15." (Sigman)
"Within 30 seconds of turning on the television, our brain becomes neurologically less able to make judgements about what we see and hear on screen. Our brain treats incoming information uncritically ... Our brain's left hemisphere, which processes information logically and analytically tunes out while we are watching television." (Sigman)
"Television provides the best means of persuading you to buy into the right values... Nowadays television executives talk of 'raising public awareness of...' This used to be simply called propaganda... Long after people forget what they hear, they remember how they feel. So Bonneville creates those unforgettable feelings..." (Sigman)
"And a study of 22,079 American adults for the pharmaceutical industry quantified the link between television viewing and rates of depression, concluding, 'The incidence of depression is a monotonic increasing function of television viewing' It seems that a television nation becomes a Prozac nation." (Sigman)
So television and video games are dangerous drugs. But, the argument goes, happy people don't get hooked on drugs. Happy mice can have access to heroin water and will choose to not drink it.
Of course, but first of all, those were adult mice not baby mice choosing not to drink the heroin water, and second of all, allowing my child the freedom to do heroin is entirely different from allowing my child to do heroin after I have told him about the dangers and risks involved.
I read these posts by these moms who advocate unlimited screen time, and I just can't imagine that it is possible for a mom to watch her kid do heroin and think, "He'll decide for himself what he thinks of it. Maybe he'll love it all his life long, and that'll be great! So important for them to find their One True Passion!"
So I have to assume that these moms either have never done any research on this particular drug or are television or gaming addicts themselves and therefore comfortable with passing on the addiction. The old, "I'm an addict, and I turned out fine," argument is reprehensible to some, but I am actually okay with it, because evolutionarily speaking, they're right. Likewise, the Christians that beat their children for the last thousand years had six times the birth rate of the modern day Swedes who don't. Not saying we should beat our children, just saying that we shouldn't immediately knock what has clearly worked (evolutionarily speaking).
Like moderation. Moderation served our ancestors well. Drugs are a part of life. Teaching our kids to use responsibly is an important part of parenting. I tell Anders that we must make sure we use the dangerous drugs like spices, to spice up our lives. If occasionally we want to use them as medicines, to change our mood, that's okay. But when we want to use them as drugs, to numb out, we need to find someone we love to talk to about it, because those feelings and choices can lead to very risky places.
Note that I have read some evidence to suggest that anyone allowed to do a drug as much as they want will, after a certain amount of time (almost never more than ten years), give the drug up voluntarily. There is possibly a "life cycle" to most addictions, an eventual end to the desire to numb out. But again these studies were done on adults, not children. In children, if I recall correctly, studies generally show that their brains alter to accommodate their addictions, making them likely candidates for lifelong abusers of that drug. I have, however, read anecdotes from parents that refute this.
Some moms who write in support of unlimited screen time say that it is not the abuse of screen time that is the issue – the issue is why the child wants to numb out. To this, I can only say, "Exactly! But then why are you handing him heroin instead of figuring out what is going on in his life that is causing him to want to not exist?!"
In my experience children, even the very young, are fully capable of having these discussions and of judging and moderating their use of dangerous substances provided they are given the information they need to make wise choices and a relationship they value. I have never had to force Anders to stop watching something. I have only ever reminded him that we don't want to overdo it.
For the record, Anders has overdone it a few times. I remember once he watched five or so hours of television in one day. The next day when he sat down to do his math it took him eight times longer than it had the day before. It took him a week to get his ability to focus back. The experience was very educational.
But back to my house where we don't usually overly indulge in screen time. It's interesting to me that none of us care very much about television. It's not like we have to exert great amounts of self-control to abstain from something truly glorious. A documentary is a welcome addition to an afternoon for Anders when he is curious and wants to know more about something. Both he and I appreciate what my ipad has to offer when I want to socialize at a friend's house, and he has to wait for me. He enjoys full moons when he watches movies that he has heard other kids talking about. But otherwise, television doesn't really occur to him as something to do with his time. He plays and when he is bored with playing he comes to see what I am doing and joins me. It's the same with me. I cook, clean, do errands, and write and when I need a break, I read or exercise or join him. Television isn't really on my radar. I love that.
I was raised without television. Of all the parenting choices my parents made, that was the single most wonderful gift they gave me – the gift of time, the gift of reading, the gift of not knowing what giant corporations wanted me to think.
When I was in elementary school my friends were obsessed with Full House. They learned that they were supposed to be obnoxious to adults and hate their siblings. During those years I read the Little House Books and thought families were supposed to be kind to one another and sisters were supposed to be good friends.
When I was in junior high school my friends were obsessed with Saved By the Bell. They thought school was lame and people who liked school were nerds, and the most important thing was to be popular. I read the Anne of Green Gables series and thought being the smartest girl in school was the best thing to be. I had no idea what popularity was, or that I was supposed to desire it.
When I was in high school my friends were obsessed with Buffy. They continued to hate school and began to obsess over boys and sex. I loved everything I got to learn in school. I thought every subject was fascinating and couldn't understand why they hated it so much. I was into Jane Adams at the time and though I did care a great deal about boys, I was just not as obsessed as my friends.
When I was in college my friends watched Sex and the City and were obsessed with sex and expensive shoes. And I ... was obsessed with James Joyce and couldn't care less about shoes.
The unlimited screen time moms shake their heads at me, "Do you really think reading is a more important activity than watching television? That reading is a more valid life experience in some way? How dare you claim that you might know what is better for me!" They're right. I don't know what is better for you and your family. But I do know that television is a dangerous drug that makes humans numb, unable to focus, passive, mainstream, unsatisfied with their real lives, poor, obese, and divorced.
I also know that while reading, our critical mind is active. A book is generally one person sharing his worldview. It's like a conversation. With television, you are hypnotized while exposing yourself to someone who will do anything to get your attention and keep it. When you watch television, you are the product. Your attention is what is for sale. Companies are not interested in providing quality entertainment, so much as they are interested in getting your attention and keeping it by whatever means necessary. Then they sell your attention to their advertisers. That is the nature of the business.
A writer has to sell his books. The reader is the customer. If the books are not good, the writer will not have customers. Not so with television. You are not the customer. You are the product. His customer is the advertisers. And the television writer will write accordingly. The more product they can deliver, the higher their ad revenue. (The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu)
This is why, if you are going to watch something, movies are much preferable to television. With movies, the viewer is the customer. (Though product placement often fudges that line a little.)
I also know that reading is directly related to our ability to think at abstract levels. According to the research of Leda Cosmides our brains cannot abstract verbally past more than five levels of abstraction. To think more abstractly than that requires writing our thoughts down in order to follow them. Reading is directly related to our ability to think complexly.
We ignore and override so much valuable information our subconscious brains feed us. There is a reason we smile and feel warm and fuzzy when we see a child curled up with a book and a reason why we feel disgusted and turned off when we see a child all zombied out in front of a screen.
"Most of the stories are told to most of the children not by their parents, their school, or their church, but by a group of distant corporations that have something to sell." (Sigman)
There are 150 different products linked to Dora the Explorer. The average American child watches 40,000 commercials each year. When the parents of TV free households are surveyed and asked how often their children pressure them to buy brand-name or otherwise popular toys, games, or foods, 97% of them answered never, rarely, or not very much. (Sigman)
"If you think about it in imperialistic terms, cultures and minds can now be colonised remotely.... Formerly known as propaganda, soft power lies in the abiity to attract and persuade other cultures of the validity and desirability of your own.... CNN, HBO and Disney have succeeded where napalm failed. Perhaps Apocalypse Now – The Sequel is playing out on the streets of Hanoi as young Communists can be seen eating M&Ms while watching Eminem." (Sigman)
"'The difference between children who can picture a story or scene in their mind's eye and those who were raised in front of a TV screen are obvious and very profound," wrote Sue, a TV-free mother who is also a kindergarten teacher. "This difference is evident in their play, their artwork, their writing, the foods packed in their lunch boxes, their show-and-tell, and their conversation. TV permeates every facet of thier being. I think children raised with screen shave never experienced what it's like to dream, create, and imagine inside their own heads–independent of externally supplied (usually corporate) vision.'" (Living Outside the Box)
"In 1990, the American Family Research Council reported that the average American parent spent 38.5 minutes in meaningful conversation with his or her children each week. That's less than six minutes a day. Given that our TV viewing has spiraled steadily upward since then, chances are the situation today is no better... For children raised without television, however, circumstances are different. The parents who participated in my survey of TV-free families reported spending an average of 55 minutes per day in meaningful conversation with their children. That's 385 minutes per week...." (Living Outside the Box)
One last interesting thing I remember reading about television is that our brains cannot tell the difference between our television show "friends" and our real life friends. Because our brains are wired to pay more attention to higher status people than lower status people, we will feel a greater need to check in with our television show friends of high status than our real life friends of lower status.
I was not homeschooled or unschooled, but I was raised without television. Yet I am far less mainstream than the homeschooled and unschooled kids I knew growing up who were raised with television. Contrary to the stories some Unlimited TV Moms spread, I didn't pine away wishing I had television in my life or wishing I were more "normal," and I didn't turn into an adult who became a television addict, neither did my siblings. None of us actually watch a lot of television still today and all of us are happy about it. I am not advocating being TV free here – I don't know what would work in your family! But I would encourage parents to think twice about their choice to welcome screens, and especially unlimited screen time into their homes. Television is not in the same addiction category as sugar, it's more similar to METH, and should be treated as such. My research and life experience has led me to conclude that heavy television exposure is more damaging than sending children to school.