Screen time: less is always more

In the 1980s, a bumper sticker that read “Kill Your Television” was common, especially around college campuses. A rather radical notion at the time, today, when most people have smartphones in their pockets, it seems charmingly quaint.

For many years, my school bus let me off at my house at 3:30. Minutes later, my mother would leave for work. I made my dinner and ate it alone in the kitchen while watching syndicated shows on our 12-inch black-and-white TV. I believe I’ve seen every Hogan’s HeroesThe Odd Couple and Adam-12 ever made. Multiple times.

When the news came on, I did my homework and got ready for bed so that at 8 p.m., network television’s prime time, I was ready. Many nights I watched until 11.

Lonely. If I had only one word to describe my soap-operatic childhood, I would choose lonely.

At 15, I ran away to my father and stepmother in Northern Michigan. During the 10 years I hadn’t seen them, I romanticized what life would be like with this other set of parents. I was soon disabused of those dreams. That is, except for family nights.

Those nights, my dad made popcorn on the stove top. He shook the dedicated pot until it overflowed as he poured batch after batch into large bowls.

We played rounds of backgammon or cards. My sisters and I often painted one another’s toenails. In the background was always the sound of … music. Proper hippies that they were, my parents did not own a television.

On those nights, I felt I belonged.

I remembered this when I had children of my own.

When my big boys were little, we had a tank-like monitor that got no television reception. We used it to watch videos or DVDs. Claude and Hugo had cartoon movies they watched repeatedly, but also had long runs with musicals such as The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

(Tip: If anyone is interested in dating one of my boys, you have to pass the movie test. Tell that son of mine you love Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or you won’t make the cut. Their rule, not mine.)

By the late ’90s, Nintendo Game Boys were popular. I saw young children, including those of my friends, silenced at length by the little screens. I never wanted that to be my kids.

When Claude went to kindergarten, I made an ironclad rule that we would never own a gaming system or Game Boys. It was probably the best single decision I ever made as a parent.

This year, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its list of diseases. Rightfully so.

When I was in high school, my friends and I often hung out in video arcades on the weekends. We’d play Pac-Man and Space Invaders, flirt with boys. It was fun, but then we went home and did other things.

I talked with Claude a few months back when writing a column about the heroin epidemic. I asked him if not having video games was part of the reason he never used drugs. It’s been well documented that gaming companies use psychological strategies to make games addicting.

Claude agreed but then said, “You know, I think it’s as much that people who game all the time don’t make many real social connections.”

I’ve known many kids who played a ridiculous amount of video games and turned out just fine. But what do many children lose when they are drawn, as I was, to screens over all else?

“Holly is very bright, but they don’t give her much intellectual stimulation so she doesn’t stretch her mind.” My grandmother wrote this to my father in August 1979.

She was right.

Kids who do not have screens available find things to do. Eight-year-old Leif plays with his Legos; 5-year-old Lyra listens to her music while looking at her books. Leif plots out elaborate stories for his dinosaur figures; Lyra undresses her dolls and puts them to bed. Both children go outside and play in the yard.

They also listen to stories.

For 20 years, I’ve regularly checked out children’s audiobooks from the library. I think today’s increase in reading comprehension issues is possibly connected to children seldom getting the chance to imagine a story told to them.

Claude, who was diagnosed early on with severe dyslexia, became a voracious reader. In 2016, he graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature.

Hugo, who quickly learned to read, was not a bookworm. Instead, he played the guitar, the piano and sang. His dedication to music earned him entry and scholarships at one of the best music schools in the country.

The summer he was 17, Hugo spent time with one of my most absurdly talented friends. She took him to a wedding of musicians in rural North Carolina. It was a three-day bluegrass jam fest. Hugo joined in on his guitar while my friend played her banjo. It remains one of Hugo’s favorite memories.

“How can I get my son to play guitar?” my friend asked Hugo. “He says he wants to but all he does is play video games.”

“Get rid of the video games,” Hugo said.

It’s not easy, once that Pandora’s box is opened, to remove games. Max recently learned this firsthand when he let Leif play Lego Creator Islands on our iPad. Sounds reasonable enough, right? In short order, it’s all he wanted to do. Max quickly put strict limits on Leif’s time with the Lego video game.

I make my living on the computer. I studied French film in college. I expect my kids will play video games at their friends’ homes. But as parents, we have the power to save our children from themselves. To teach them balance.

For two decades, my rule has been no screen time on school nights (with the Winter Olympics and the U.S. presidential debates as exceptions to this rule). Our only television is in the basement and the adult in charge must approve any viewing, which is limited.

Kill all your screens? No. But for everyone, especially kids, less screen time is always more.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 4, 2018

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