Screening #1: In Defence of Screens

English: Publicity photo of Larry Hagman and B...

Publicity photo of Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?

Do you want to use one of these shiny sharing buttons?

0 comments on “Screening #1: In Defence of Screens”

  1. Rochelle Reply

    Alright, then… I’l kick it off. My kids watch tv. Sometimes I wish they didn’t but then I’d *never* have a shower or get dinner on the table. Or, if I’m honest, have 25 minutes peace and quiet. When my kids watch tv, they are quiet and captive. Sometimes they watch too much. Sometimes they don’t watch any for days. But yes, they watch tv. They’re watching Mickey Mouse as I type this. (They woke up at 5am… it’s a long morning!)

    They also play games on our computers and phones. Some are better than others; some are more ‘educational’ than others. Our almost 2 year old’s favourite game is one where she gets to squash ants on her father’s phone.

    Here are the rules in our house:
    * The kids only watch pre-approved shows. We record several age-appropriate shows off Freeview and simply play episodes of these (over and over)
    * They have to do their ‘morning jobs’ first if they are to have tv in the morning. On many mornings, this is a good way to avoid tv without actually having to say no as we run out of time before they go to preschool etc…
    * The tv is not allowed on until 5pm (dinner sorting time). Before that, they have to ‘find something else to do’. If they grizzle and moan, there’s no tv (usually more of a punishment for me!). This also gives a convenient end point – dinner at 5:30(ish!).
    * Games are played under supervision from a parent. Similar time restraints exist; however, they play games much less often.

    Here are some things I’ve noticed:
    * Their behaviour gets worse if I let them watch too much tv. They start losing the ability to entertain themselves and demanding to be entertained
    * They love the songs and dances on some of the shows they watch. It’s really cool watching them get into the dances
    * There are, as Thalia has noted, few good female role models in kids’ tv. I have 3 girls so I’m mindful of this.
    * Some games are really great. They offer good learning opportunities and I’m amazed at how quickly my daughter picks them up. Some a rubbish.

    So there it is. We watch tv. We play games. We also run, jump, climb, cut, draw, paint, garden, bike, argue… oops- talk, laugh… etc! Once upon a time, I was a bit sniffy about people who let their kids watch tv. Now I have 3 kids and I wouldn’t judge anyone for a second for letting their kids watch tv. Bring on the idiot box!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks heaps for this, Rochelle.

      I really like your rules and your observations. I would love to hear recommendations for apps that have been popular in your house.

  2. Pippa Reply

    Many many questions and prompts here Thalia!!

    And I can’t quite believe that I am going to start with this one, but, in defence of first person shoot-em-ups. I live with someone who I consider to be one of the most gentle people on the planet, slow to anger and even in moments of extreme frustration/annoyance etc I am not sure I have seen him come close to behaving or responding aggressively. But he loves his XBox and he plays his fair share of call of duty and other similarly aggressive shooting, killing games. I think your point about decoding and defusing is very valid. I would argue that the age certificates on games are too. Do I think it does Ad any harm playing these games, or has done him any harm since he was about 18, no I don’t. But when I hear 11 year olds talking about the same games, then yes, I do.

    With my slightly more work hat on, than Mummy of a 5 month old hat, I think it comes down to knowing what teenagers are doing, staying engaged and in touch with what they are interested in, and that includes knowing the content of games or films they are playing/watching.

    However, thinking back to my adolescence, there are things I watched on the TV in my room, that I would never have watched downstairs, even if Mum and Dad weren’t out! (Just in case they returned home). But actually do I think that seeing drug taking/ explicit sex scenes etc in This Life (its the one that comes to mind) did me any harm, no I don’t. I would have been mortified if they had tried to start a conversation about it…good job they didn’t know!!

    As for younger children, it’s still all theory for me, but I would think it comes down to balance doesn’t it? Probably best that the TV isn’t on from getting up to going to bed, but the odd day when it is wet and cold and time is short and energy levels low, it probably won’t do any harm. It will balance out hopefully with the painting and baking and playing outside etc. I’m just not sure that banning things or restricting them excessively works that well.

    I think looking many years down the line it is facebook/twitter/text messages etc that worry me the most. At least when we were at school you could come home and what ever kind of day it was you were disconnected until the next day. I am not sure that the constant ability to be in touch does anything other than make being a teenager (and younger) much much harder.

    That’s all a bit muddled, like I said at the top, you prompted lots of thoughts…

    Firefly – fantastic! Have you watched Fringe?

    • not a wild hera Reply

      No, haven’t see Fringe – recommended, eh? Good!

      Tell us more about your work hat – what is your work background? Keen to hear more insights.

      Ah, yes, Facebook etc. Whole nother thing, really, isn’t it. Anyone know parents of tweens and teens who might tell us how they approach things?

      • Pippa Reply

        My work hat: I work as a case manager in a Youth Offending Team, about 70% of my role is working with young people; assessing their risk of reoffending harm and vulnerabilty and trying to develop plans with them/for them to reduce their risk in each of these areas. Sometimes it is creatively trying to work with them to address these areas, other times it turns into a risk management exercise, proving that I have time every thing I could have and should have when they inevitably do something harmful to someone else or themselves. The other part of my role is working with parents, for our young people who are not in care (of whom there is a shockingly large proportion) those that are at home often have fraught, difficult, violent relationships with their parents, and even if they don’t fit into that category their parents are normally tired and stressed. So part of my role is working with parents, trying to rebuild relationships; explaining ‘normal’ adolescence and seeing their childs behaviour as part of a spectrum and trying to give an outlet for parents. There is a lot of media and community blame placed on parents whose children offend. As much as the child’s offending can often times be put down to their past, blame isn’t really very useful in moving forward. And there is often enough guilt swilling around without others adding to it.

        I have probably missed lots. This is also probably a rose tinted version…give me a few months back after maternity leave and I might give you an entirely different answer!

        My comment above comes from part of the programme that we run, when we try and encourage parents to re-connect with their children, often they have got into a cycle of punishments, with children refusing to comply with the punishment (climbing out of windows when grounded, destroying furniture in bedrooms) and the communication between parent and child revolves around what their child is doing or not doing. We often recommend some time together on the Xbox or whatever console – allowing their teenager to be the expert, to ‘beat’ their parent and often times for the parent to see their child doing well at something.

        • Pippa Reply

          Should have read that back before I posted…”proving that I have done…”

  3. Alex Reply

    Now I’m not first, I’ll confess – I am that parent who will happily stick a dvd on for the children to watch while I get on with cooking dinner. Most days when M comes home from pre-school that’s what happens. In fact, we often spend the walk home discussing which dvd it will be today. And yes, that means my daughter – now 2 and a half – has been watching an awful lot more television than her big brother would have done at her age. I can’t honestly remember when this habit started, though I do know we used to limit the Jungle Book to 20 minute sections when M was smaller. Those days are long since gone!

    It does tend to be films that they watch, rather than tv – Disney classics, mostly (though we’ve so far avoided the princessy ones!) and some of the newer Pixar ones. Either that, or one of their They Might Be Giants song sets. Conveniently, most of their films are exactly the right length the fill the gap between getting home and dinner being ready… There are a few tv programmes that they know and ask for (In the Night Garden being a particular favourite for a post-dinner snuggle on the sofa) but generally it’s films. I have no idea if that’s “better” or “worse” for them – worse in the sense that they are longer, I suppose, and haven’t necessarily been developed with pre-school age children in mind; arguably better in the skills they’ve developed for following complex narratives, perhaps. It has definitely had an impact on their play – they often go around pretending to be Buzz and Woody, or Sully and Boo (Monsters Inc), generally they just act out scenes from the film, but they also extend these and make up their own storylines.

    As I commented on an earlier thread, sometimes they watch in languages other than English. I realise that probably sounds a bit pretentious or pushy, but it is only when they request that option – I don’t force it on them. It started when a friend gave us a copy of Finding Nemo in Romanian – given half their family is Romanian and they don’t get to hear the language all that often living in the UK, it seemed a good compromise. M now tends to ask what the language options are before we start viewing – often he still plumps for English, but not always.

    I was going to say we haven’t really got into screen-based games yet, but then remembered that M’s camera that we requested for him for Christmas came with a few games on it, that he enjoys playing and has picked up astonishingly quickly. (Astonishing to my mind at least – I was never that into computer games, beyond Solitaire and Minesweeper, so console-based stuff is all a bit of a blind spot for me.) We haven’t – yet – needed to come up with any rules or time limits for that, as he tends to put it down of his own accord, although I will ask him not to play it for long when we have friends here to play with (he does like showing people how it works, though, which I think is fine).

    In terms of rules, I generally try not to turn the telly on in the morning, but I don’t always stick to that. If I have a mammoth chore that needs completing, or if one or other of us is feeling poorly, I will sometimes give in to a morning request, but I usually insist on the songs rather than a film on those occasions (I console myself that the songs are at least educational…)

    As the others have said, I think it’s a question of balance. If my two stopped enjoying books or didn’t ever want to play outside or play with their other toys then I’d say we’d gone too far. Maybe the line is a long way before that, but at the moment, they seem to be healthy, bright and happy children, so I’m not going to beat myself up too much about their tv time. My red lines (at the moment, who knows when they’ll shift!) are that I will not put tvs in their rooms – we have one, in the living room, and that’s plenty – and I will not install in-car DVD players – we do plenty of long drives, which we spend singing and chatting and looking out of the windows; I see no reason to change that.

    I dread the day they are old enough to go online and join Facebook etc, or the time when they come home and request a mobile phone to keep up with their friends… I’m sure those days will come sooner than I imagine and I need to come up with a plan. Will be interested to hear from parents of older children about how they manage these things.

    • Alex Reply

      Having just driven to the dentist I need to add for honesty’s sake squabbling to that list of in car activities… my two are champion squabblers :-/

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Can I just say that I LOVE the languages trick! Not only is it fab to have that option for exposing them to languages – especially family languages like Romanian for you – but what a great way of coping with the hundredth viewing of their favourites! Win-win-win.

  4. SKATERAK Reply

    I am much more relaxed about this matter than I was before I was a parent. Maybe I’ve fallen in to the trap many people do, which is accepting that TV is a necessary evil. (I don’t really mean that). I had a friend who told me that my boys should watch lots of TV and play all the latest screen games so they can keep up with their friends at school. I told him that there was no way I was going to dumb down my own children simply so they fit in with some other children. I assured him there are plenty of children in families not dominated by TV or an insatiable need to have and do the latest. We then agreed to disagree.

    We’ve tried a few techniques over the years to be reasonable about this with our boys. We don’t have TV shows piped into our house. We all feed from a hard drive plugged into the back of our TV. This ensures we remain ad-free and can choose carefully what the boys watch.

    Regarding the amount of TV they watch, each son is given 10 marbles at the start of the week which they must guard with their lives. During the week they can cash in each marble for 20 minutes screen time (tablet, pc, tv). They can sometimes lose one if they misbehave or get an extra one for doing something special. A family movie of Friday night is ‘free’ (no marbles needed). It works for us and them and means that if they want to spend all afternoon in front of the tv one day, they can – but only once a week, as they’ll soon be out of marbles.

    I have discussed this matter with lots of great parents and been very impressed with how deliberate so many people are. They don’t play TV viewing by ear, but there is a plan and clear procedures in place which suit them, their schedule and their children.

    • Alex Reply

      Sounds like a good system… What age were your sons when you implemented it? How do you manage it if one chooses, for example, to watch more TV than the other – would you banish the marble-saving child from the room with the TV during that time? – or have you found that they tend to align their marble usage? (Not meaning to sound critical, just trying to work out whether we could use something similar…)

      • SKATERAK Reply

        Hi Alex -nice to hear from you! We’ve actually just been using marbles for a few weeks. It’s very clear, which suits our boys well. They are 7 and 4. They have plenty of space inside and out to play, so if they don’t want to, they don’t ‘have’ to be in the same room with the TV on. Most of the time they like to watch the same things at the same time. This may not always be the case though I suppose. 200 minutes a week seemed like a lot at first but by the time they watch for an hour in the weekend (they are both early risers) and played a few games on the computer after school, most of the time is gone. They still get plenty of time outside and for other activities, I feel. They normally lose one or two for tomfoolery, as well, but there have been weeks when they didn’t use all 10. They don’t carry over 🙂

        There are still times when they can’t use a screen – weekday mornings, after dinner, meal times. I think a clear system is all it takes. Take care!

        • Alex Reply

          Cheers for that. 200 minutes a week doesn’t sound like a lot to me (at least, not in the context of how much our two watch at the moment in any case…!) I suspect ours are a little too young to make a marble system work just now (4 and 2), but I’ll certainly keep it in mind in future.
          I’m hoping that there may be a seasonal aspect to all of this in any case – for the last several months it’s been too cold here to expect them to play outside for any length of time. Assuming we ever get a summer of any description (and I really would settle for some mildly warm spring days at the moment!) I’m sure the ratio between outside play and screen time will switch dramatically…

      • not a wild hera Reply

        LOVE the marbles trick. A really good balance between having a boundary so they don’t watch/play endlessly, but letting them decide when and what so they learn to exercise wisdom and restraint, and really enjoy what they choose (rather than just see what’s on and channel surf etc). I think this will catch on!

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