Coffee and Conversation: In Defense of Screen Media

Sit down with a cuppa, and let’s chat a while…

Last week, Campaign for a Commercial -Free Childhood promoted its annual Screen-Free Week. Many parents turned off the screens in their homes. Libraries and bookstores offered up alternatives; board games sellers and family attractions hopes for a few of your dollars, in lieu of viewing.

We did not participate. Everyone here had freedom, all week, to use television, computers, videogames, and Kindles exactly as they pleased, without limits or even gentle hints that they might want to turn off or disconnect – just the same as every other week.

Here’s why:

We don’t have a problem with how televisions and other screen delivery systems are used in our home – not by us, and not by our children, either.

On a recent evening, we were gathered in my room, me writing on my laptop, and Annalise and Jeremiah playing Minecraft Pocket Edition on their Kindles. It was time forThe Big Bang Theory, a family favorite, so I changed the TV fromM*A*S*H.

Discovering it pre-empted by March Madness, I wandered up the channels toPBS – where we found scientist David Pogue shopping for the elements his body was composed of – $189 dollars worth of chemicals.

A screen and a smile.

Jeremiah settled in on my cedar chest, his favorite spot for intensely focused viewing, and scarcely moved until Nova’s Hunting the Elements was over. He learned more about what we are made of, the chemical reactions behind fission, about rare earths and radioactive isotopes, and how elements are related to the Big Bang (which he may remember later, as he watches TBBT (coming full circle).

Annalise was more interested, at that time, in learning how to shear a sheep in Minecraft, so that she could use its wool to “Make your bed better, Mommy!”

Sometime after this, while we were on a walk – another favorite activity – the children were noticing the building materials our neighbors were using, and discussing how they have used those items in Minecraft.

Other recent viewing has included documentaries on water shortages, a Dakota woman, harpy eagles, Lippizaner Stallions, evolution in Australia, and the Dust Bowl, in addition to a lot of My Little Pony, Powerpuff Girls, and a smattering of The Simpsons, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Good Luck Charlie, and Squid Girl.

Connection via Minecraft and two Kindles.

We talk often about what people here are watching, and frequently watch all or part of a show together, often while snuggling and chatting. It is as far from disconnected as I can imagine. And because we talk, and share, I know that they watch nothing mindlessly, and take learning from all of it.

We outgrew adversarial parenting…and adversarial living.

One of our fundamental parenting principles to look to our children for guidance in how best to support their growth and passions. Jeremiah is a visual learner, with a strongly scientific, technology-leaning mind. Screen delivery systems are second nature to him. He loves physics,chemistry, technology, anime, animation, gaming, and engineering activities, and sometimes performs virtual surgeries.

Annalise enjoys nature shows, sites, and apps that feed her passions for fashion, music, art, and performing.

Screen media provide them fingertip access to their passions and faraway friends, and the means to discover more. They provide tools for research of diverse types – and these are kids who, at 8 and 11, do considerable amounts of independent online research.

After a long, rosy-cheeked romp in the snow, there was hot cocoa and television.

We don’t believe that everything in life is an either/or proposition.

One reason often cited for limiting viewing and playing time for kids is that “screen tine” takes them from other things, like outside play, reading, or other things often thought to hold higher value.

I have not noticed that here. While there are times when there is a lot of viewing, there are also times when all electronics are set aside for a rousing game of tag, a walk, a day at the beach, a good book or three, chatting, or many other things. Often, screens and other things happen together.Without controls on how they use “screens”, my children have developed a natural ease in the way they fit them into their rich and varied lives.

Our children do not attend school, or activities that they did not choose to participate in. Therefore, the vast majority of their time is unscheduled.

A child who spends 6 or more hours a day in a classroom, has homework, and maybe has commuting time, extracurriculars, enrichment classes, and chores assigned by Mom and Dad, might appear to be watching “mindless television” – but is that so different from an adult who just needs to “veg out” to recover from a hard day at the office?

Let she who is without screens cast the first flash drive….

Television might not so much be the problem as a child with adult-sized obligations.

My children have never attended school; never had homework. We participate in the outside activities they choose to do. Sometimes weeks go by without them, other times we pursue several in the space of only a few days, until we simply can’t do any more.

Sometimes, they spend lots of time with television, games, and other screen entertainment, and others very little, as they delve into physical or creative pursuits with similar intensity. I’ve noticed the same is true for me – I have surges of needing input in vast quantities, and others where I pour forth creative efforts.

Peaceful coexistence includes lots of screens, and lots of books, too…

We don’t see screens as the enemy. They offer so much diversity, so much of the world. They have become a vital part of our society, and our children are learning for themselves how they fit into their own lives, moment by moment.

And, for us, there is great value in that.

Do you participate in Screen-Free Week? Why or why not? I would love to know – leave your comment in the receptacle below!

15 comments

  1. I fully agree. When you make screens a no-no, they become forbidden fruit. That’s exactly what happened to me and my sisters when we were growing up. We’d just go to a friend’s house and watch all kinds of idiocy because we could. Same thing with candy. Everything in moderation, and everything in thoughtful, mutual consideration–that’s the way to use screens. Good for y’all.

    • Gretchen,

      I was forbidden to watch shows my parents didn’t like – like Star Trek, M*A*S*H, Monty Python…

      I accept that the ways my children use screens won’t be the same way I do…but then, I’m 44, and they are 12 and 9.

      Because we aren’t limiting what and how they watch, they are more willing to share what they’re watching, and discuss it, than I’ve noticed in more controlled kids.

      And they learn – oh, do they learn!

  2. Wow. I didn’t even realise that Screen Free Week was a thing. Perhaps it just hasn’t extended to Australia yet.

    As a young person (19 years old), I will admit that I spend quite a bit of time in front of screens. Most of that time, however, is in front of my laptop screen, writing, researching, working on university assignments, and sometimes just relaxing and reading blogs or watching YouTube. I use my phone to check emails, check in with my family (who live in a different state), and bank. Sometimes I love to settle down in bed or on the couch with my partner to watch something. But I also love to read, exercise, and explore the world around me.

    My partner spends a lot of time playing video games (some say too much), but he also has a well paying job, and loves to go to the football and spend hours walking around playing golf.

    To me, the idea of a Screen Free Week sounds bewildering. Not because I’m addicted to my screens (as I’m sure some would think), but because, as you said Shanjeniah, screens are a part of life, and a wonderful part at that! Trying to pretend they don’t exist because of an attitude that blames children disengaging with the world around them on technology seems, well, a bit ridiculous if you ask me.

    • Rachel,

      I’m glad it hasn’t become a thing in Australia. I wish it wasn’t one here, and I wish that I’d never inflicted it on my own children. They use screens for a lot of the same things you do – and they also enjoy being outdoors to play, observe nature, camp, take long walks, look at the sky, and other things. My daughter, who will soon be 10, is particularly physical and outdoorsy, like her dad.

      We also go to museums, libraries, plays, concerts, events indoors and out, restaurants, stores….in other words, we live life.

      Of course, they aren’t in school, and never have been, so they essentially have all their time to themselves. No six hours a day of enforced constraint; no homework after.

      I watch them, and I don’t see screens as an either/or proposition. Today, they went outside. My son took a sketch book and pencil, and some duct tape to make bracelets for pretend play. My daughter took her Kindle, and bought a new song, which provided the soundtrack while we played a ball game and tidied up the yard a bit. Then they came inside; where they watched things, read paper and ebooks, and where my son video chatted with a friend who lives a state away.

      I tend to stay up late, and, when I find something online one or the other will enjoy, I send the link to their Facebook wall, so I don’t forget what I wanted to share with them. They can talk to people all over the world, and play with them. That’s not something I could do at their ages (I’m 44; we didn’t even have a computer in the house until I was about 15, older than either of them).

      You’re right. Not having screens would be something akin to not having books, at this point. And I certainly don’t want to take something so useful and horizon expanding from them!

      A note: Without the loveliness of screens, it isn’t very likely that someone in America and someone in Australia would be having this conversation! =D

    • August,

      My problem is parents inflicting the “break” on their children, in the name of….well, as near as I can see, fear. Fear of screens, as though they are, in and of themselves, dangerous.

      If I, as an adult, decide o take a week off, that’s my choice, and me who will figure out what to do instead. But to insist that my kids do it, because I think it’s a good idea…

      That’s not cool, to me.

      There’s a lot of reasons why we homeschool, why we moved to unschooling and then radical unschooling. But a big one is trust.

      I trust my kids to know how they want to conduct their lives. If something is truly dangerous, I will step in (“Do you see how you can only see a little way up the road? Cars coming toward you can’t see you, either, so stay off to the side, where it’s safer.”)

      Because my son loves My Little Pony, he’s been reading a lot of “fimfic” lately, all online. And he’s been inspired to write his own. He told me the other day, “Mom, my problems with writing are pacing, spelling, and execution. I can make an outline, and I know what I want my characters to do, but those things get me.”

      And I was able to tell him that pacing and execution are often troublesome for me, too – and I’m a good speller who will happily help him.

      Without screens, would he be writing? I don’t know. My own writing will forever be interwoven with Star Trek, because that’s how my passion was conceived – writing often anatomically impossible fanfiction erotica with Eden Mabee all through high school…

      I think when adults impose their fears on children this way, the relationship can suffer. I have an engaged, happy, peaceful relationship with two kids who trust me. They’ll be teens soon (one, in a matter of months), and I know I will need their trust as the choices before them become a lot more important than whether or not to use screens.

      I’m not willing to jeopardize that. I intend to remain trustworthy. =)

      There was a time when print and reading were seen as dangerous activities, too.

      If you choose to do it, though, I hope you find it refreshing and invigorating. I’ll be here, when you get back – probably watching Enterprise! =)

  3. Reblogged this on shanjeniah and commented:

    Ah, it’s getting on toward that time again….time for me to take a stand in favor of skipping Screen-Free Week.

    In the last year, we’ve watched, and enjoyed, and learned. Dragnet and Adam-12, and discussions of legal and ethical matters. My Little POny, and a foray into writing fan fiction. Lots of documentaries and comedies. Anime, and a world of conversation. Star Trek: Enterprise, ad the vagaries other species and other worlds…

    Oh, and there have been many times when we’ve been otherwise occupied – camping, cooking, walking, swimming, going to events or museums, playing in the yard….

    Screens are part of life. Not the enemy, not an addiction…

    A part of a rich and varied life – just the way we like it!

    How about you and your family? Are you planning to limit or eliminate screens from May 5-11? Why or why not?

  4. I dont have all those screens – The one Tv in the house is in the spare room, I have my computer and thats it:( I grew up with no TV until I was 15 , we were a radio house- during my 2 decades of travel i often went months with no TV and hardly any radio – I would think if children have a full interesting life theres no harm in screens, as long as they have access to their parents time and interest, should be okay.

    The only objection I have to screens is the way plain good manners are often lost – in the middle of conversations attention is turned to answering texts, looking stuff up and attention wanders. I am sad when I see two people sitting at a cafe table together each engrossed in their screens:(

    Todays children have instant communication and knowledge, my generation had telephones just and film- my parents had radio and ecylopedias and my grandparents had an effecient postal system- before that well flyers on walls, rallys, before that oral storytellers – we move on.

    • alberta,

      If I am counting correctly, there are two basic cable- equipped TVs (about 20 channels) here, two old analog TVs in the kids’ rooms, for gaming and videos, three laptop computers, one possibly defunct desktop that no longer gets much use, three Kindle Fires, and various personal gaming devices. My phone is semi-smart- I can go online, with an effort, and in a pinch. I have only done that once or thrice….

      I agree that screens are not a problem in a connected family. I think parents who control them would find the ease with which the children fit them into their lives. The problem I see with control is that it does little to foster actual ability to balance…a child told they may have only one hour of gaming time a day is very unlikely to want to play less, and just as likely to feel cheated if circumstances prevent them getting that hour.

      When we have the freedom use something when we please, we also have the to decide when and how much of it we want.

      I know what you mean about the rudeness and disengagement some people exhibit with screens, and cell phones, too. Small cell phones became popular while I was waittressing at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. I would come to a table, greet them,and only then realize that someone in the group was nattering away on a cell phone, ignoring spectacular views, and the busy waittress who needed to move along….

      Often, if the children and I are shopping on a weekend (something we tend to avoid, since we have the luxury to go midday and midweek), we will notice parents pushing a cart with one hand, a cell phone pressed up against their ear with the other. It provides an effective barrier to interaction with the child shambling spiritlessly next to them-a child who was most likely limited to a classroom for most of a week.

      When we shop, we are three friends out to complete a mission, and have fun doing it. When we have Kindles or computers out – at home or at a restaurant, we are sharing, discussing…

      When people are connected, everything can offer opportunities for sharing. When they aren’t, maybe anything can be an excuse to escape and disengage.

      So glad you came and stirred the conversational pot! =D

  5. I think it’s all about balance – as is the case with most things in life (and particularly, parenting). My 3.5 year old plays games on the iPad, and dances to Zumba Fitness with me on the Xbox, and has a few favorite programs on Netflix (we don’t have cable – the result of a financial choice when I was jobless).

    But he also loves to play outside, spends hours drawing and writing in his notebooks, playing with blocks, and singing to the cats.

    Variety is good for kids – and that variety can include screentime 🙂

    • Amber,

      We didn’t have cable until our oldest was about 8. Even with it, we spend as much time with Netflix as with cable. There are 101 programs on our instant queue, a mix of what each of us likes.

      I know dozens of kids who have the freedom to choose how to spend their time. None of them spend all of their time with televisions, computers, or games. Some use them more than others, but all use them as a natural part of a rich and varied life.

      I think things that are forbidden tend to be fixated on, and it’s only an either/or choice when adults make it one…

      I think, if people got away from calling it “screentime”, or acting as though it’s different than any other activity someone can choose, a lot of the seeming “problem” would vanish.

      Enjoy all the wonderful moments with your son. He’s at a great age! =)

  6. I think a lot of it has to do with parental involvement and parents modeling healthy behaviors. Some of my fondest memories of childhood revolve around Saturday nights when the tradition was to eat dinner in front of TV (horrors!) and then watch the Saturday night shows together. My mother would often comment on things in the shows (some of which were really beyond my years). I still remember a lot of those comments to this day.

    • Kassandra,

      I will be 44 this summer. I grew up, for my first ten years or so, in a home with only one television. We had four channels – 3 networks, and PBS. There were no videotapes.

      We watched what my parents watched. I saw Psycho at five, on late-night TV. When I was 6, my father, who most loved the news, Lawrence Welk, and Yankees baseball, told me, while watching a political report, “Pay attention to this. Politics is very interesting.”

      With the freedom to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, many internet sources, basic cable with digital extras, and a variety of DVDs and videotapes, Jeremiah and Annalise often choose to watch things that might seem odd for their ages.

      For us, it comes down to trust. We trust the kids. We trust a connection built upon deep familiarity. Because they haven’t gone to school, they and I have spent the vast majority of their waking moments in close proximity (we live in a very modest, small home – even in separate rooms, it’s not hard to know what others are doing). We intersect often throughout the day, and talk about what we’ve done, seen, and thought.

      It does seem to be a matter of interaction, and maybe the intent of the parents in providing the screen media, and in using it themselves. For both Jim and I, screen media provides relaxation, learning, connection, conversation and a wider angle on the world and ourselves. Maybe that’s why both kids tend to take for granted that that’s what these screens are meant for.

      The first thing I remember hearing on TV was Watergate. I was four, and thought it was a dam. Vietnam is the next thing….

      I’m glad you had that Saturday connection with your family, and that you came by to share. I love thinking of you in front of the TV, rebelliously eating your dinners.=)

  7. Since I’m a big geek, I love screens. LOL. My kids played a lot of video games and watched a lot of television, especially my oldest son. My mother-in-law really didn’t like the way my oldest son played games so much, and worried about him being obsessed. Today, that son has a good job making more money than any of the rest of the family ever thought about making. (He’s a chemist.) He has a great wife, and is happy and healthy. I’m kind of thinking “screens” didn’t hurt him too much. 🙂

    • Lauralynn,

      I love stories like this! I can’t say yet how Jeremiah will earn his living, but I would be very surprised if it didn’t involve technology.

      I have several family members who do not understand, who firmly believe that limits are essential. We tend to not have limits as much as principles – “Your right to have fun ends where it starts to take away someone else’s” is one.

      I used to control screens, and many other aspects of the kids’ lives – and life is sweeter and richer without it.

      Like your son, my kids are (obviously!) happy and healthy, growing and thriving. Screen delivered media is a part of their happy lives, a part that offers them many new ways of learning. That’s pretty important in an unschooling life! =)

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