I’m just going to start here right off the bat by admitting that I have done almost no research whatsoever on the long term effects of screen time on children (or adults) and everything below is based solely on my own opinion and anecdotal observations. That sounds like a recipe for a good blog post, right?
But if I could sum up my total thoughts on screen time into one simple and straight forward sentence it would be:
I don’t like being with my children after they’ve watched TV.
You see, my TV has this really quite extraordinary ability to turn my otherwise relatively well-behaving and mostly emotionally stable kids into a dark and beastly version of themselves. The symptoms of this “dark side” are increased disobedience, discontentment, lethargy, a sense of entitlement, and above all else, a temporary loss of the ability to speak in any tongue other than what we affectionately call “whinese”.
For this reason, we do not allow TV on a regular basis at our house, with two exceptions. One, in cases of sickness (and yes, one must distinguish between actual sickness and the pretend sick they usually pull the day following a real sickness just to see if I’ll put on cartoons again) and two, Friday night movie nights. On Friday nights we do put on a movie and let the kids eat dinner on a towel in front of the TV. They are not immune from experiencing the “dark side” after this once a week event, but they usually go straight to bed so it’s less of an issue.
Otherwise, no TV.
In addition to sidestepping the dual personality disorder described above, I think there are two primary advantages to limiting (or altogether avoiding) screen time in the home. The first is that it encourages reading as a substitute form of entertainment and the second is that it unmasks negative behaviors that might otherwise go unnoticed and unaddressed.
I haven’t done the research here, but I think we can all agree that reading is better than watching TV. Reading activates the imagination in a way that television cannot.
I love to read. I will often choose reading over watching TV. My husband has some level of interest in reading – he likes it – but he struggles to get into it in the same way I do. I have dissected this fact and looked closely at our upbringings to see if there is any explanation for the difference in reading enthusiasm.
To sum it up, my husband watched A LOT more TV than I did. Sure, he played sports and was active and healthy – it’s not like he sat home all day playing video games. But TV was present in his daily life to a much greater extent than it was in mine. I definitely watched TV (a whole lot more than I let my kids watch!) but I also remember my mom enforcing a read to watch minute swap system whereby we had to read as many minutes as we wanted to watch TV. If I wanted to watch a half hour episode of Full House I had to read for a full half hour prior to the show coming on. Naturally, there was less TV watching going on in my house than my husband’s house. My mom also encouraged reading by taking us to the library often and reading to us on an everyday basis.
It’s no surprise then that my brother, my sister, and myself all grew up to be book loving adults. Yes, we all watch TV, but we all are avid readers as well. This makes me believe there is a negative correlation between the amount of TV allowed during a child’s developing years and the amount that child reads as an adult. My hope is that by limiting exposure to screens (TV, video or computer games, etc) as much as possible and encouraging reading instead, we will produce avid adult readers.
Unmasking Negative Behaviors
One downside to television that I don’t hear discussed very often is the way it can cover up negative behaviors that would otherwise need to be addressed. Parents use screen time as a quick fix for undesirable behaviors and although it may work in the short term, it leaves the bigger issues unresolved.
For example, a mom may turn on the television so she can get a few things done around the house while her children are occupied. This seems like a good solution because the kids are safe, quiet, and no longer distracting her from the household chores. But in that case, the television is just putting a little bandaid over the real problem – which is that her children are not able to play independently. A mother should be able to tell her kids that they need to go in another room and play so she can cook dinner, make a phone call, or fold the laundry. Turning on the television may give her a 30 minute break, but until she teaches her kids to be content entertaining themselves, the problem is just going to continue.
I know how it is come late afternoon. You’re tired, you’re trying to get dinner ready, your husband isn’t home yet, and your kids are bouncing off the walls. You could turn on the tv and they would probably sit there on the couch quietly watching while you pour yourself a glass of wine and busy yourself in the kitchen. But that solution doesn’t address the real problem – which is that your kids need to expend some energy! Don’t turn on the TV- throw them outside and tell them to run around!
Another example of screen time masking behavioral issues is giving children a phone or tablet to play with at a restaurant. Letting a 4 year old watch youtube videos while you eat may make for a more peaceful dinner, but it also just hides the problem – that the 4 year old is unable to sit still for an hour during a family dinner.
Perhaps most common is the use of television as a remedy for tiredness. If a child is super wired, throwing tantrums, or otherwise acting crazy, they probably don’t need to sit in front a TV and “wind down”. They need to be put to bed.
Screen time should not viewed as a fix for negative behaviors because it doesn’t actually FIX anything at all. It just covers up the issue. If we want to actually address the behavior, we must greet it head on.
Finding a Balance
I am aware that at some point, I will have to strike more of a balance with my children and technology. Soon they will be in school and they may have to spend some amount of time on a computer or tablet. In the future I do want to be able to incorporate television as a form of entertainment in our home (in moderation of course!). But my hope is that by limiting their exposure now, I will have already cultivated a love of books within them and will have addressed the behavioral issues that screen time may potentially mask before it’s a regular part of their lives.
Plus, back to my original point about television and the dark side, I will actually enjoy being with my children.
Today everyone at the Babywise Friendly Blog Network is posting about screen time! Be sure to check out what they’ve written!