Unplugged in the Family Room

Playing on the Lego games website

The glare from the screen flickers on my sons 6 year old face as he stares intently at the downloaded Lego game. He is immersed, almost swallowed whole by the screen, enthralled by the interactivity, the colourful graphics and the many leveled options that drip feed him like a pellet fed mouse. He would happily disappear altogether into this digital media fun land if we let him. It is only my hand, wrapped firmly around his ankle, that keeps his feet on this side of the screen.

Many families have had their children swallowed by screens. At first it was just the T.V, sitting benignly in the corner, spilling forth cute children’s shows and DVD’s with perky presenters and catchy theme songs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the children moved closer to the screen, grabbed a chair and a mouse and started clicking on stuff. Suddenly, while your peeling carrots or checking emails in the other room, they’re entranced, plugged in and gone all digitally native on you.

As a 21st century parent, I feel the magnetic push and pull of the digital world and it’s effect on my children. Having studied and worked in the media and also taught young children about the media, I’m particularly interested in how our plugged in digital experiences intersect with our family lives. Many children I have taught (children in Grade 3 and younger) have a T.V and a computer in their bedroom, as well as an arsenal of computer games and hand held games gear, seemingly at their disposal 24/7.

Media in bedrooms for little kids is a particular issue, because it gives them unmonitored access to the media world, particularly through the web. It also assumes they are mature enough to make good choices about what they will view, play, upload and download. If you’ve ever sat through a morning of kids cartoons, you’ll understand that kids aren’t always choosy or discerning viewers.

For the first 5 years of my sons life, we lived without T.V. When I told my primary age students this, they looked at me aghast and said, “But… how do you live??!! Sure, Asher watched plenty of DVD’s, played a few online games and watched the odd Youtube clip, but essentially he grew up with a large backyard, lots of great toys and a small, daggy, non wide screen T.V. He would watch all the usual G rated stuff and the occasional nature doco, but at the end of the show, it would just stop (DVD’s just finish, and that’s all folks), and he would start playing with his toys or go outside. His T.V exile meant that he had a limited time frame around his viewing and he wasn’t exposed to 100,000’s of ads. He has never pestered us for stuff, mainly because advertising hasn’t convinced him that he needs it.

We are perversely proud of the fact that he has only recently recognised the McDonalds big M and still calls it ‘Old MacDonalds’! When he first noticed it, aged about 4, he said, “Hey Dad, that’s a funny looking sun!” (I mention this because the McDonalds big M symbol is considered one of the most widely recognised symbols in the world. And Asher really is very observant!)

We have used the DVD player as an electronic babysitter at times, but we always knew what was on and for how long and Asher always knew that there was a time for turning it off and doing something else.

Many children (and adults too) use T.V’s, Computers and Games as their default way of relaxing: vegging out in front of a screen. However, think about the number of pictures, sounds and words their young, developing brains are interpreting and give meaning to in a 30 min show or a 90 minute movie or in a 4 hour gaming marathon. It’s a lot for to decipher and really not that relaxing. Sleep studies have shown that high levels of media interactivity effect the quality and quantity of sleep. I’ve taught kids who look strung out on a Monday morning at school because they’ve spent 10+ hours playing computer games on the weekend or went to sleep at 10.30pm because their was a good movie on the T.V in their bedroom.

Having the screen as a default way of relaxing or tuning out, also implies that all entertainment and fun will be found elsewhere and provided by someone else. Limiting the availability of Asher’s media entertainment helped him feel capable of creating his own fun and diversions. Susan Maushart, in her excellent and often hilarious book, The Winter of our Disconnect, (Random House, 2010) shares her journey of disconnecting herself and her 3 teenage children from the mainframe of media for 6 months. Amongst her many insights, she talks about the changes that occurred in her own family as a result of having no T.V, computers, mobile phones, IPods, or gaming stations pulsing in the background whilst they shared a meal together.

With no more attractive prospect to lure them from the dinner table, the children did not exactly learn to linger over cigars and brandy. But at least they stopped inhaling their food {speed eating} and bolting for the nearest digital foxhole…. we probably increased our face time at the dinner table by 15 – 20% in both quantity and quality.

Susan Maushart, The Winter of our Disconnect, (Random House, 2010)

Maushart makes many deep observations about her children’s and our societies use, overuse and abuse of the electronic media. One of the fundamental things she discovers is that our modern predilection for being plugged in 24/7, and for entertaining and virtually connecting ourselves into a stupour, separates us from ourselves, each other and our ability to connect as families. Or put another way, having screen free time allows us to connect with ourselves and each other in a more real and meaningful way.

Asher is nearly 7 now and T.V has once more entered our lives. He watches afternoon cartoons, he’ll sit through a movie, he hates the News,  but he’ll happily switch it off and go and do something else. He is an excellent little artist, can climb and run like a monkey and music is also a big part of his life. Hopefully, the simple choice to have no T.V in Asher’s early life, has given him wings to be a creative and active participant in his own ‘real’ life.

And no doubt one day soon, he will recognise the McDonalds symbol and probably want to eat there.

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