I was never going to be a parent who fretted about screen time. After a decade working in various university Media Studies departments, I was pretty jaded about the dire warnings regularly dripping into the public domain.
For a start, media consumption has always worried someone. In the 1700s, novels were supposed to inflame the senses; newspapers fed ‘lurid tastes’; movies would terrify gullible people; Batman made boys gay; rock’n’roll was lewd; my generation’s brains were ‘rotted’ by television. Et cetera.
Such fears help powerful groups justify controlling access to media: authorities (doctors, aristocrats, teachers, parents) are forever condemning some dreadful text adored by weak-minded ‘subordinates’ (workers, women, POC, children) and calling for restrictions.
And children are the worst. For 200 years, adults have painted them as our opposites in every way: Vulnerable, tasteless, irresponsible, parents were morally obliged to protect them by controlling – well, everything, because whatever they like is harmful. Especially screens. Doctors said so.
Trouble is, screen-effects studies often mistake correlation for causation, and they medicalise social issues. Consider, for instance, a finding that kids who spend more than X hours a day on their screens do less homework, have fewer friends, are more overweight, and are more depressed. Do the kids struggle because they watch ‘too much’ (or play too many computer games, or listen to death metal) or, do they watch/play/listen because they’re already struggling in our deeply flawed school and social systems? Like other ‘addictions’, the vice itself is never the whole problem; simply taking it away won’t solve anything.
Meanwhile, media studies researchers who actually interviewed kids, found that far from mindlessly absorbing the messages drilled into their putty-like brains, children were discerning viewers, critiquing characters, stories, production values, and themes. Some screen consumption facilitates social interaction; some improves spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination; studies of older youth and adult fans show gloriously creative communities.
With all that under my belt, articles like this made perfect sense, because rather than controlling access, Baranoski created connections pulling the childrens’ interest into other realms. When I read about radical unschoolers allowing their young son unlimited screen time – which he gorged for three months before moving on – I thought, yes. Enplace basic safety precautions, talk talk talk about content, but let them figure it out themselves. So many of us rebel, the minute we can, against parental controls, and it can take years (and damage) to find our own balance. If I could spare my kids that detour, I would.
I did not decide, ‘no limits’ from the off, you understand.
I had my fears, like all parents, about doing The Right Thing. I know we all need to move, our bodies need sunlight, and that screens’ restricted worlds don’t really teach us how to deal with hot, crowded, loud, smelly, reality.
But for many years, my and my son’s shitty health (on top of our particularly hot, humid, and buggy environment, and a lack of close friends) meant we were frequently not up for all that.
But as our screen time expanded, whenever I felt “OMIGOD WE’RE DESTROYING THEIR BRAINS”, my professional background called for calm observation.
And sure enough, I could see that my kids’ engagements vary widely – just like mine. Sometimes we’re learning from content; sometimes we’re learning from activity – and what we learn might be content, or it might be how to follow instructions, correct, plan, and persevere, yea, even through failure and boredom. Sometimes – gasp – it’s boring, and we switch off voluntarily! Sometimes we are creating. Sometimes they’re in the middle of something, and ‘screen time’ doesn’t end when we planned. (Sometimes I’m in the middle of something, and they’re on my case.) Sometimes the screen is a background to other activities. Sometimes screen time is social time. Sometimes we’re vegging out, recovering from outings or meltdowns, waiting for bedtime. Sometimes it’s all that in the one day. Sometimes it’s a refuge; simply knowing that it’s there for later, helps us keep calm and carry on. Dropping that battle means we’re all more relaxed about the other ones.
I know some families for whom the opposite is true: their battles begin and end with screen control (hint: it isn’t always the kids’ problem). I absolutely respect their choices: control here isn’t for the sake of it, it’s about wiring, and recognising their own needs and abilities.
And that, I think, is the crux of it. Every family is different. Wiring, health, mental health, and circumstances (not to mention socio-economic factors) vary so widely – not just within and between families, but also over time – that blanket guidelines need to be taken with a giant pinch of salt. So often, the issue is not what and how much is watched/played, it’s about what else is going on: is the space outside the screen – home, school, outdoors – safe and welcoming, where the kids’ interests and needs are met, valued, and managed in a way that works for them? Because if it isn’t, the environment’s hostile push compounds the screen’s beguiling pull, and that battle’s lost.
Oh, my wordy lordy, it’s been hard to write this post without turning it into another phd. Both the question of screens’ impact, and the question of management are really complicated. But they are unnecessarily complicated by discourses that foster parents’ fears and the urge to control. Reality is more nuanced than that. Children are more nuanced than that. Give them – and yourself – credit. We are all doing the best we can where we are.
There. Soapbox stowed. Enjoy your weekend.
As this is a blog post, I’ve left off the references a scholarly paper would require. If something I’ve said tweaks your interest, do ask. I’ll try to unpack the ideas or see if I can retrieve a reference from the hard drive for you. R.