Friday, April 15, 2011

Screen Free

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood promotes "Screen Free Week" April 14-24th to encourage families to evaluate their electronic media habits.  So I'm taking this opportunity to write about our TV, electronic games, computer/internet, and movie habits.  If your habits and beliefs regarding electronic media are different than ours (and they likely are), please note that I am not critiquing your approach but describing ours.  

We're extremists about TV; there's no other way to put it.  N. has never watched TV.  I don't watch TV.  We have a satellite so that Tim can watch the Minnesota Vikings and occasional Twins games, which is the extent of his TV viewing.  So TV is not part of what Holly at Unschool Days calls our "family culture."  Tim and I are simply not interested in TV ourselves, and we don't think TV offers anything to our six-year-old right now that he can't get in richer, better form elsewhere.  I won't rehearse here all the reasons suggested by child advocates for limiting young children's exposure to TV; you are likely familiar with them.  Our top concern (among others) is with the aggressive marketing of a specific, gender-restrictive vision of childhood in order to sell stuff to kids.  The world of TV does not align with our values.

Most of our friends with kids regard our zero-tolerance policy towards TV as if it is a heroic act of parenting that they admire but could never achieve (at least that's what they say to us; privately they might well think we are totalitarian zealots!).  But it is actually much, much easier never to turn on the TV in the first place than it is to negotiate limits with a child who has developed a TV habit.  Just don't start!

It is easy for us to maintain a TV-free home because that's our family culture.  But what about all the TV outside our four walls?  We always sit away from TVs in restaurants, airports, the dentist's office, etc. (TVs are so ubiquitous!).  When N. plays at a friend's house, we tell the child and parents that N. isn't allowed to watch TV, movies, or play video games, and even if people think we are crazy they've adhered to this because they know it matters to us.  The result is that the kids always have lots of fun doing all the other things kids do together.  When a friend has turned to screen entertainment, N. has, of his own accord, left the room to play with other toys or hang out with his friend's parent (he loves talking with adults!).  I only recently learned that this was how he deals with his neighbor-friend's occasional screen time, and I was so proud of N. for having the fortitude to stick with our rule.

I think this fortitude is one of the great side-effects of our TV policy.  I grew up all but TV-free and I experienced my parents' restriction of TV as part of their larger 1970s-inflected program to resist mindlessly conforming to mainstream American culture, an approach I was very proud of.  I internalized their commitment to living their values as part of my identity, and I see N.'s ability to walk away from TV as a sign that he is internalizing this commitment too.

All this is not to say that we will never watch a single moment of TV in N.'s entire childhood.  We taped a couple of speedskating races (2-3 minutes long) during the Winter Olympics and watched them together and N. has watched an occasional Twins at-bat with Tim.  I have very fond memories of watching The Cosby Show with my family as an older child so I recognize that watching TV together as a family can be fun, though I can't imagine there will ever be another such sweet and wholesome show!  In the meantime, who even has time to watch TV?

I have an implacable prejudice against electronic games of all sorts.  It makes me sad to see kids playing DS games while out and about, utterly absorbed in their own world and missing entirely the real world in which they are nominally moving.  Multi-player online games strike me as a poor facsimile of real social interaction.  I don't believe that supposedly educational electronic games are particularly effective.  I don't understand why you'd want to play a simulacrum of a sport on a Wii instead of actually going bowling or playing tennis.  I am convinced by the argument that violent video games are detrimental to players' humanity, and I think boys are especially susceptible to this.  I was not convinced by Steven Johnson's apologia for video games in Everything Bad is Good For You.  [In addition, I don't play Angry Birds or anything else on my iphone, I don't let my son play with my iphone, and I carefully monitor my own use of it so I don't fall into the habit of constantly checking my phone.]  So, we are unabashed in our absolute restriction of electronic games.

Computers and the internet can be good homeschool resources but we are nonetheless wary of giving the computer a prominent role in our daily life.  We always look things up in books first (we have two awesome encyclopedia sets) and we use the internet as a supplement rather than a primary source.  Partly this is just to reinforce bookish habits over screens.  We feel that we interact with each other more through book research and we feel somewhat passive and isolated when using the computer.  I haven't read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows yet, but I am very sympathetic to his claim that the habits of mind fostered by the internet may be antithetical to deep concentration and sustained thought.  N. doesn't use the computer/internet himself at all and has expressed no interest in doing so.  We don't use reading or math programs on the computer because I don't think they provide anything he can't get from paper methods.  At some later point in his education we'll certainly work on learning how to do effective internet research, to navigate and evaluate resources (a skill my conventionally educated, supposedly computer literate college students sorely lack!) but there's no rush for him to acquire these skills.  Until then, there is much reading, learning, and playing to be done away from the computer.  In fact, I could benefit from spending a lot less of my work day staring at my computer!

N. before entering the theater to see The General.
All these restrictions may sound so... restrictive, as if we spend all our time policing what N. is exposed to.  But we think of our role as curators.  We want to present a rich selection of material that is fun, interesting, thought-provoking, and consistent with our values; for us, electronic media is only going to be a very small element of that selection.

By limiting N.'s exposure to electronica we actually give them more power.  He's not visually jaded.  Because I watched very little TV as a kid, I found movies exciting, overwhelming, and sometimes unbearably frightening.  Film is a powerful medium!  And while Tim and I watch no TV together, we absolutely love movies and watch at least one almost every weekend.  Until recently, N. had never seen a movie or DVD.  We wanted him to have the awesome experience of seeing his first movie on a big screen, so we were waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.  In March, a local museum showed Buster Keaton's 1927 classic silent film "The General" complete with live piano accompaniment.  It's about a man and his beloved steam engine!  What could be more perfect for N.'s first movie?  He absolutely loved it, and it was so fun to share his huge laughs at all the train stunts.

Is our largely screen-free life inconsistent with the philosophy of unschooling?  Some people would certainly say that it is.  As I have written before, we define "unschool" for our family in a more limited way than some do.  We work with N. to follow his interests, but we also offer guidance.  By curating N.'s media experiences, we are able to offer powerful visual encounters that are consistent with our values and meaningful to N.


mouseprints said...

I read this post with great interest. Thanks for taking the time to articulate your views on media habits. Good for you for staying away from it.
My kids were TV free until I got pregnant with my third, and then I spent so much time in bed that the video machine became their babysitter. I've never allowed them to watch TV because of advertizing. I was and am very strict about what they watch, but my husband and I have been talking lately of cutting it off completely. My youngest has developed nightmares that I think are entirely due to her movie watching. It doesn't take much to terrify a three year old.
I'm completely against video games and gaming systems, especially those that give the illusion of family togetherness.

Mom and Kiddo said...

I think you might have inspired me to write my own post about our no-screen habits.

CMR said...

A large part of our motivation for restricting TV when you were growing up was that it depresses creativity and imagination rather than fostering it as books do. When people ask for me for parenting advice, the first and only thing I say is, "Turn off the TV and read to your children."

Jessica said...

I love this post.

You know this autumn we were close to getting rid of our television altogether? Guess what happened? My in-laws bought us a SONY flat screen and a Blu-Ray player.

It is a waste--we don't even have cable. Having an HD television without digital cable is sort of like having a hat collection and being the headless horseman. :)

We watch an hour of PBS Kids each day and a lot of real-life/non-fiction videos & clips via the internet (Of course, I choose them and access them).

Video games (i.e. DS, etc.) are out. Benjamin has no interest. The closest we come to "gaming" in playing Peep & the Big Wide World games on the website. :)