Playschool, Rainbow, Sesame Street: I could still sing you the theme songs.
The Muppets. The Smurfs, though I was disdainful of the lack of female representation, even at six. The Flintstones and every other Hanna-Barbera cartoon ever made.
Happy Days, Diff’rent Strokes, The Cosby Show, Benson, Charles in Charge, M*A*S*H, The Beverly Hillbillies, Hogan’s Heroes, I Dream of Jeannie: how I learned about America.
Doctor Who! John Pertwee was my first Doctor, we were so far behind the UK, and I also loved him in Worzel Gummidge.
The Kids from OWL and Terry Teo led a golden age of gripping Kiwi kidult drama, and Ruud Kleinpaste taught me much of the science I learned.
The arrival of the Apple IIE, joystick included, introduced our household to binges of Montezuma’s Revenge, Tetris and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, which I still think of whenever I hear of Bamako or Sofia in the news.
The Simpsons, Neighbours, Home and Away, and Grange Hill were joined by the grown-up crowd of ER (where I learned how to bluff my way through medical conversations with doctor friends), endless mini-series and TV movies, Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday nights and LA Law (basically why I went to law school).
That’s all before leaving home. As an adult discovering boxed sets of videos and then dvds, the main perk of chronic illness has been plenty of time to watch the best of international television, back to back. Twin Peaks was first, with my friend Steven, then BBC frilly frock dramas started coming out – I’ve seen them all – and now we’re in the golden age of television, where the best talent on both sides of the camera is invested in making genius shows like Mad Men, the Wire, House of Cards, Doctor Who [insert your favourite show here]…
So here’s my dilemma. I love pop culture and I have no regrets about the amount I have consumed. I did plenty of other stuff as a kid as well as watch television: crafts, projects, baking, music, sport, drama, roaming the gully with neighbours, and devouring most of the library.
And yet. I haven’t had a TV in the house for years, and I don’t really want one back. We watch dvds and online video stuff on the computer, but not regularly. When I see the amount of merchandising aimed at kids through screen-based entertainment, it horrifies me.
SBJ didn’t see anything on a screen until his dog addiction inspired the discovery of Maymo the naughty lemon beagle. He is such good friends with Maymo now that he can distinguish beagles from other dogs on screen. Eek/humblebrag.
I’ve been pretty down on the idea of SBJ having much to do with screens, particularly television, but this fascinating article, among others, has really made me reconsider and come at things with a more open mind. So I thought perhaps we’d run a series on kids and screens.
To get things started, it seems to me that just like with eating well, we face a tension between the needs of the dependent present and the independent skills for the future we want our kids to learn. We want them to a) consume media appropriately now, so they grow up healthy and b) learn to be critical and self-controlled in their media consumption so they will be able to be wise as adults.
So we have three basic approaches to choose from. We can ban junk food or junk TV entirely until our kids leave home, which will achieve a) at the expense of b); we can give them carte blanche, aiming at b) and hoping it doesn’t take too long for a) to work out ok; or, of course, something in between.
Whatever we do has to combine both monitoring their consumption (focusing on the present) and teaching them to be media-savvy (with an eye on the future).
Within that framework, here are some of the issues I think about when considering how I want SBJ to interact with screens (or spectacles, or contact lenses, as will no doubt be the case before long!). I’m keen to chat about some of these with you over the next little while.
Getting the good stuff:
- Social connection is awesome, and social media can be.
- Information, knowledge and skills are mere clicks away. There’s no doubt that there’s oodles of education and enrichment to be had from all media.
- Aristotle is still right: the arts, including screen drama, are part of being human.
- Shared pop culture is awesome! I love that I can argue with friends about who the best Doctor is (DT, obviously), introduce people to the small but perfectly formed Firefly and have Gilmore Girls parties.
Dodging the bad stuff:
- Are violent movies dangerous? What about first-person shooter games?
- Trying to avoid other ‘inappropriate’ material: sigh.
- Body image, self-esteem, sexism, the sexualisation of children: there’s an awful lot to decode and defuse for our small people.
- SBJ doesn’t have great genes for keeping out of the Western obesity epidemic, so I’m wary of too much sedentary time, and also of repetitive strain injuries from computer use.
- Consumerism! Merchandising! Advertising! Argh!
- Are kids ‘growing up’ faster than they used to or need to because of the media machine? I seem to have encountered a lot of eight-year-olds who can do a perfect cynical eye-roll or hair-flip.
- I tend to see most value in screens when they’re a shared activity – watching something together or taking turns trying to vanquish the nemesis on a game. Am I right to be wary of a household where everyone’s on their own device? Which is of course how the adults in our house operate already!
- There’s value in boredom and silence and I don’t want SBJ to think he needs to be entertained by something external at all times.
- There’s value in all sorts of unplugged things, too, of course, so how do you work for a balance?
What else is on your mind? Most of us seem to live with guilt for pretty much any media our kids are exposed to, but few of us are ditching all screens, either in our own lives or in those of our kids, so it would be good to try and disentangle some of our values and practices.
What are the benefits you want for your kids? What are you worried about? What wisdom can you share?