Screen Wars

SpongeBob SquarePants

Image via Wikipedia

I’m sitting here indulging in one of life’s little pleasures: M&M’s. If you’ve ever opened a Halloween-sized package of M&M’s you’ll know that the pleasure is indeed little: the Almond M&M’s package contains exactly four morsels. Everything in me wants to open another package, but I of course know that my children’s Halloween treats should be enjoyed in moderation, and probably primarily by the children. If only moderation were a lesson we learned in childhood and never again forgot…

Last weekend passed much the same way most weekends do at our house: the children have unlimited playtime, Daddy works on some projects, and Mommy does the laundry because hydro’s cheaper. One notable exception was that our eldest son, by virtue of attending school, has developed a taste for a certain web-based educational computer game, and was seemingly unable to do anything but either play the game or ask to play the game. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for him, his mother is not a fan of substituting computer play for imaginative play, so he spent many hours unsuccessfully begging, “Mommy, can I go on coolmathgamesforkids? PLEASE?”

You can imagine the frustration this caused us both. My steadfast resistance in the face of his persistence caused me to seriously evaluate my reasons for wanting to limit our children’s screen time at their young ages. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just give in and allow him the indulgence more often? (To be clear, he did have some opportunity to play the games on the site.) It must be said that things are much more peaceful around the house when one is playing a video game, another watching a video, and the other napping. Our children don’t fight when they are being entertained.

Even so, I am loathe to – as I see it – open up the media floodgates in our house. Up until recently our children’s exposure to screen media was limited to the following: TVO Kids and Kids CBC (both publicly funded commercial-free children’s programming available with only an antenna.) Once those signals went digital, the children’s access to entertainment was pared down even further to our selection of VHS and DVD videos. They played a game on a second-hand VTech Smile once, and Teddy played a few music games that I use in my piano studio for teaching purposes. Recently he had been on TVOkids.com about three times, and twice he had played the Wii at somebody’s house. That’s it. The more exposure he has to these things, however, the more they draw him in, and the less interesting the real-world alternatives seem.

On Saturday morning we visited a family where the TV runs constantly in the living room, so our children were transfixed by the novelty of SpongeBob Squarepants and saw more children’s advertising than they had in their entire lives up until that point. In fact, Teddy saw an advertisement for one of his favourite toys (a BeyBlade) and reacted in much the same way one does when one sees a familiar face on television. “Hey Mom! Check it out! A BeyBlade on TV!” Unfortunately not every ad was as benign as the one for the BeyBlade, and I shuddered as I saw the violent and disturbing “toys” being foisted upon our children’s imaginations.

On the way home Oliver and I once again renewed our resolve to shield our impressionable children from the pollution of television advertising. I can see no good reason to pay at least $30 a month for a service that fills my kids’ heads with all the things they’d like to have but don’t have yet, or worse, a whole slew of programming that does absolutely nothing to develop their character or intellect, but only teaches nonsense, obscenity, and/or violence. As much as I (as an adult with more self-control and discretion) would like to have access to a wider variety of interesting programming, I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it in the lives of my children. I’m sure there will come a time when they are older that we’ll consider it, but not while the clay of their minds is still so soft and pliable.

I realize I’m very old-fashioned and many readers will think I’m being too harsh. Not every parent will agree with our approach, and that’s ok. Every family’s situation is different, calling for different measures. But allow me to illustrate our reasoning the way we did for our son on the weekend:

“As a child, you lack the self-control to eat sweet desserts in moderation. If we were to put an apple and a slice of cake in front of you, which one would you pick? (He was honest, and answered “cake.”) As your parents then, it is our job to limit the amount of sugar you consume, because we know it’s not good for you to consume too much, regardless of how good it tastes. As long as you are under our care, we cannot let you stuff your face with desserts.

One day you will be an adult and you will make your own choices. You will have the choice at that time to have as much cake as you’d like, but you’re the one who has to live with the consequences of your decisions.”

I highly doubt that anyone would question our decision to limit our son’s sugar intake, but there are plenty of people who allow their children to gorge themselves on media as though the entire pastime is completely devoid of consequences. It doesn’t take long for all other foods to lose their appeal, as their craving for the decadent sweetness of media trumps all other desires. From one weekend to the next we witnessed a transformation in our little boys, from getting lost in deeply imaginative games using cars and Playmobile, to simply looking for something to tide them over until they could once again be entertained by a screen. Am I wrong to be concerned?

My husband, who is drawn to technology and screens more than I am, had this sage piece of advice for his little progeny: “Teddy, even as an adult I often ask myself this question: am I still the boss of the screen, or is the screen the boss of me? Can I tell it when I will turn it off, or does it tell me to keep it on?” Wise words.

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