My ipad’s battery is dying. It’s been through so many recharge cycles, it’s ready to give up the ghost. Since I got it about 5 years ago, it’s seen almost constant use, but when I put it down it had a chance to rest.
And then children came along. It became clear to me and wife fairly early on that a screen was a rapid way to pacify an irritable child. With the plethora of today’s children’s channels, there is always something available during waking hours to stick on for your children. My ipad, and the TV were rapidly pressed into service to give harassed parents a rest from nagging and tantrums.
I still remember the first time I could discern when my daughter had been affected by a TV programme. She was about 18 months old and strapped into her child seat in the back of our car, as we drove around doing Saturday chores. She kept making this repetitive noise: “Baar-de-dit-dit” in something like a sing-song voice. As I drove home, I figured out she was singing the theme tune to ‘Bob the Builder’.
Bob was a fixture in our household, as was Iggle-Piggle and the denizens of the Night Garden. My daughter was joined by my son, and both children reached an age where they could articulate requests for specific visual experiences. It seemed innocuous enough, at first, necessary even. Pressing the ‘on’ button was like pressing ‘pause’ on the intensity of spending time around your children. They would sit still, go quiet, and direct their gaze unblinkingly towards something we called “the pretty-light-box-moving-picture-thingy”. Now one could cook the evening meal without interruption or sticky-fingered offers of ‘help’ involving proximity to blades and boiling liquids.
And who could deny that there was genuine educational content to some of the programming? Many explicitly stated their credentials for showcasing ‘community values’ or exploring how selfish behaviours can wreck relationships. In many plot-lines, an apology was needed for a character to restore his or her friendships. So far so good.
If the characters of these programmes started off as anodyne and innocuous, they didn’t stay that way. As my children have grown older, the cartoons and programs they like have obviously changed. Now plots are more complicated, involving more romance, threat and even some tentative exploration of loss and death.
Whilst some visual experiences could enlarge and perhaps benefit a child’s understanding of the world, this isn’t true of all of them; not all cartoons are created equal. Often I would walk into the lounge and find some supposedly hilarious offering that made me wonder whether my children’s selection of programs needed more supervision. Some cartoons involved slapstick, but of a type where one was encouraged to laugh at cruelty, or at the bullying of the weak. Others involved disturbing elements, such as the supernatural, or zombies which led to disturbed sleep for my son.
More interestingly, my children’s behaviour was changing. My daughter worked out, quite early, that if she made a nuisance of herself (invading a parent’s personal space, clutching at them, singing loudly or trying to tickle someone inappropriately) she might earn herself the reward of more screen time. This wasn’t just a case of a child wanting attention, we caught her saying to her brother as much.
Whilst switching a screen on might earn a parent some much needed tranquillity, eventually it will need to be switched off, and when that happens your child’s affect is almost always negative. There are howls of frustration and rage!
This is a stage worse with computer games. Whilst some children’s games can be educational, many are not. What makes many games on tablets or consoles so compelling is something like a neurological reward system so that you or your child gets lots of little dopamine ‘hits’ as they play; a level up here, an upgrade there. They exploit your child's neurochemistry, explicitly and intentionally so. This makes the game very hard to switch off, and once the dopamine stops flowing, your child is apt to be ungrateful, sullen and cranky. It helps to point this out to them. In their more honest moments they will ruefully agree with you.
To mitigate the constant demands for more screen time, and wholesale rewiring of our children’s neurology, we introduced a pasta reward system for chores. Now our kids could earn a pasta for, say, doing an item of homework. Pastas mean prizes; spend 4 and you get 30 minutes on a computer game of your choice. Whilst not perfect, this meant that once a child had spent her pastas, it was understood that no further screen time was available that day, so deliberate parent pestering was discouraged.
Unfortunately, such was the draw of the screen that sometimes our children would deliberately take more than their share of screentime, watching ipads under the covers in their bedrooms, or not removing ‘spent’ pastas from their ‘pot’, so they could buy another session with the same currency. The deceit is interesting, not least because one has to wonder whether they would do the same for other activities.
I also wonder whether playing on games leeches the enjoyment out of the rest of the child’s day. I know that when I was addicted to computer games, all I wanted to do was get back to switch on my machine, everything else from seeing friends to playing with toys was boring by comparison. Homework was an afterthought at best. And I deceived my parents to get more access to games as well; skipping lunch at school so I could save up for a coveted game.
The parenting challenges presented by screens are actually pretty profound. We need to resist simplistic answers; whilst we could stop all access to screens, in the long run avoidance isn’t the best strategy. We need to teach our children to be strong; to develop a resistance to the things in life that seek to have control over them; whether that be computer games, or alcohol, sexual gratification (and certainly narcotics)
Showing our children how games and programmes control them and shape their attitudes and behaviour is actually pretty beneficial. You can point to their ‘lived experience’ and say “look, you spent all this time playing, but you came away cross and irritable and no better off. What do you think about that?” I tried this with my kids recently, and they actually said that they wished they had no access to screens at all. (I don’t think they meant it though!)
Doing this builds up self awareness in your children, and self knowledge maybe one of the most precious forms of knowledge of all.