February 25, 2015
I was a latchkey kid. I know way too much TV trivia. My parents knew that if I was watching Gilligan Island reruns, I probably wasn’t roaming the streets, starting fires or chasing girls up trees. Weekday afternoons, prime-time line-ups, Saturday morning cartoons, Sunday golf tournaments with Dad. It’s a wonder I wasn’t plumper than Honey Boo-Boo. Fortunately, I also liked to ride my bike, run through the woods, and shoot hoops (imagining that I was Pistol Pete Maravich).
During the great radicalization that was college, I read a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978) by Jerry Mander. It compared the process of watching TV to the process of hypnotization. It also discussed how visual media supplants our imagination. (What kid can read Harry Potter without imagining him looking like Daniel Radcliffe?) So I went straight off it.
In the 1960s there was a lot of concern about the “vast wasteland” of television. That people were staying home with the boob tube, instead of engaging in the world, turning their brains into green slime. It felt good to turn the box off for decades, occasionally popping in for a trend or a pop culture update only to find, like Springsteen sang in in 1992, there were 57 channels and nothing on.
Somewhere along the way, TV got better. Show’s like The Wire and Breaking Bad pulled me back in. Then we got pregnant, so instead of going out and “engaging in the world,” it was staying in and binge-watching episodes of The Good Wife (the feminist Perry Mason).
Now that I have a child, I’m worried about it all over again. I see how she reacts when the TV is on, like it’s some cosmic god speaking secret messages to her. And the TV is now the laptop and the phone as well. She’s drawn to all of them in a way that freaks me out. Am I a bad dad for flicking on Kelly Ripa to get a break from the intensive parenting duties?
The conventional wisdom is to turn the TV when the kid is younger than 2 (uh oh). That TV does two things to your kid. First, it takes time away from conversation and playtime that actually stimulates the brain more than the flickering images on the screen. The second thing is that it retards cognitive development, creating lasting effects on language development, reading skills, short-term memory, sleep patterns and attention issues. Great.
It’s a scary time to be a new parent. Research shows that the average 12-month old baby gets between 1 and 2 hours of screen time each day. Plus there’s all that Baby Einstein crap targeted at young parents that probably turns your child into a babbling imbecile who votes Republican and thinks Kenny G is “jazz.” On top of that, the massive push to give kids iPads as pacifiers is horrifying. The research here is even worse. The more screen time a kids gets the less they can emotionally connect with others. And that’s just one of the problems ahead for kids transfixed on their iToys. Have you seen Wall-E?
I see this at the university level. I banned laptops in my classes because students zone out on their Facebook pages or download compromising pictures of Nicki Minaj instead of taking notes. University administrators are pushing for more online education, replacing tenured faculty with websites run from Mumbai. The results are in. These students learn significantly less, but the university will tell you it’s the “future of education” (and administrator pay raises).
So I’m gonna turn off the TV and get out a box of blocks. Cozy can entertain herself just fine (Sorry, Ellen). Sure, we will occasionally do some screen time for fun. She loves to laugh at videos of herself. (I’m worried she’s already headed for Hollywood, the little vixen.) But I have to think I would be a lot smarter with a few less episodes of The Brady Bunch in my brain. Why not give my kid’s brain a better start?
I know it’s easy to be lazy. “Baby’s crying. YouTube an episode of Teletubbies, stat!” But this kid’s brain development is too important. So I’m going to close this laptop and we’re gonna go read some books. I don’t want to turn her into a knuckle-dragging, mouth breathing fan of Jerry Springer who thinks global warming is a lie because it’s kinda cold today. If I can’t entertain an 6-month old, I should just quit now. (This the where I do my James Brown dance and she craps in her pants in approval.)
Here’s a great post on the subject by another blogging dad: Raising Baby in a Digital World