November 11, 2009

The Lure of the Screen

Imagine parents lamenting the amount of time their children were sitting in front of an entertaining screen. Only it was 40 years ago, and the screen was that of a television -- perhaps a black and white one at that. Chances are, there was only one in the house. Programs typically ran 30-60 minutes and could be turned off without cutting you or your children off from contact with friends, work, or school.

Fast forward to today. Text messages and Facebook messages arrive almost constantly. Kids communicate with friends almost entirely on screens. We feel lost when the Internet is unavailable, and kids often need it for school. It's immeasurably harder to separate our lives from screens. While I've heard some making a comparison between the lure of the screen and the alcoholic's need for a drink, it is easier to eliminate alcohol from one's home. I equate the struggle to that of a compulsive overeater. These days, screens are as ubiquitous as food, and we need both to do our jobs. Don't forget, though, you can binge on healthy food too.

What's a parent to do in the face of these challenges? With young children, we have more control. While educational computer games for the preschool set abound, it is important to limit the time spent on them. Better to teach a child to read with actual books. Better to teach about numbers with physical objects. Not that kids will learn faster this way. In fact, the flashier computer games probably offer more immediate gratification. But, if we don't expose them at early ages to how enthralling learning and life away from the screen can be, it will be infinitely harder to engage them later on. Read to them. Sing to them. Dance with them. Play with them outside -- not on the Wii fit. Help them find something they love, and then spark their curiosity. It will be much easier to limit screen time at age eight if they've developed interests (even fleeting ones) at age four.

For any age group, we need to model what we expect of them. As Michael Osit writes in Generation Text, it is important that our kids see us engaging with them and with each other. Such conscious parenting requires that we monitor our own screen use. If we pull out a Blackberry in the middle of a conversation, use our cell phone while driving, look at our cell phones every time we hear that a text has arrived, and always have the computer on, we are demonstrating that these devices are indispensable and merit more attention than the people around us. Kids need to see that we enjoy activities away from screens. Just as we want ten year-olds to spend time together without being in front of a screen together, so, too, do we need our kids to see us visiting face-to-face with friends, engaged in conversation or joint activities. They need to see us relaxing, reading, talking and thinking away from the constant stimulation of the computer and cell phone. Peggy Orenstein's description the Internet in her October 28, 2009 NY Times column The Way We Live Now ("Stop Your Search Engines") is apt. She wrote: "as alluring as we can find the perpetual pursuit of little thoughts, the net result may only be to prevent us from forming the big ones."

Even teenagers might take a brief walk with you and the dog on a beautiful afternoon. Perhaps you might even have a few minutes to enjoy the colors of the fall leaves together, or even have a conversation. You can probably persuade them to leave the cell phone at home for a short while. Just make sure that you leave yours behind too!

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