kids watching TV

60 Minutes A Week Of Screen Time: Here Is How I Did It

A couple of days ago my older daughter asked me if the animals of Bangalore had come to Mumbai. At first, I was very confused. Then I figured that she had been watching a nature show on TV. She’d seen a similar show while she’d been visiting her grandparents. It made be happy that she hasn’t yet figured out how television channels work. I’d like to think it’s her lack of exposure to the idiot box that makes her that naïve.

There are a few things that drive me crazier than watching kids sitting in front of a screen – immobile, consuming, often meaningless, drivel. I don’t mean to judge but it’s not really the job of the TV or the iPad or the laptop to bring up our children or educate our children, as I’ve often heard claimed as being the case.

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While my younger one is still years away from watching TV, the older one is restricted to a maximum of 60 minutes of screen time a week. While each parent has their own philosophy, I’d like to make a case for why my wife and I have come to believe that extended ‘TV time’ is a downright bad idea:

  1. TV (or any other screen) kills the imagination – If she’s not going to be able to think of ponies and the colour of the wind, and is going to literally have her mind’s eye guided by television, she’s missing out. Imagine reading The Hobbit and seeing Bilbo Baggins as Martin Freeman or thinking of a dinosaur primarily as a purple stuffed toy. Not to mention, there’s enough studies out there that show that screens also make them more easily upset and angrier.
  2. The declining art of story-telling – Call me old fashioned but kids programming today has increasingly become about instant gratification. No longer do we see the lengthy narratives or the poetry of writing in the genre. Notable exceptions do exist (think Little Einsteins), but most are brash, loud pieces of content that eventually descend into generic lessons in friendship or moralistic sermons (think Chota Bheem). Storybooks, by their very being, must tell a story. I’m proud that my four-year-old can name more books than she can TV shows.
  3. Couch potato – The 30 mins that the older one spends watching a show on TV, she sits in a zombie-like state. She might blink occasionally but that’s often the best indicator that she isn’t a statue. She doesn’t move. I know I did that too, but I know better today than my parents did. Instead, she could spend those 30 minutes doing something else. Singing, climbing the window grills, or even entertaining her sister. I’ll admit it’s easy to sound militant, but I don’t want my kids to become a statistic when they grow up.
  4. Bonding – Another important thing about watching TV is that prevents us from talking to each other or just plain hanging out. Unlike the late 70s when dinner and TV was a family activity, today it’s a very solitary activity. Even when you’re a four-year-old.

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So, how do we counter this? How can we make sure that we don’t deny our kids what pretty much everyone their age has such easy access to without it causing long term damage or a civil war on the home front?

My wife and I keep it very simple:

  1. Handpick what your kid is watching. Think of it as food for the brain. Just like you wouldn’t feed your child something that isn’t nutritious, make sure the content teaches them something. Watch it yourself as well, and ‘be the parent’.
  2. If you do decide to let them snack on junk food once in a while (which of course, we do), then once in a while a ‘guilty pleasure’ show is fine too. As long as it doesn’t become the staple. In our home, the ‘guilty pleasure’ show is My Little Pony. We’ve now got her watching wildlife channels as a staple while streaming cartoons is slowly losing out in the popularity charts. Of course, I expect that to see-saw for a while to come.
  3. We talk about what she’s watched. I find that it helps her evaluate whether what she’s watched has made her think differently or taught her something. I often wonder whether I’m over-intellectualising the viewing habits of a four-year-old, but she’ll often surprise me with replies that range from ‘Science can help you understand the world’ to ‘Singing helps make people happy’ to ‘Animals should be in their homes in the jungle and not in the zoo, right?’ I doubt she understands the nature of science or the idea of captivity but that she is able to come up with these thoughts and inferences on her own makes it worth it for me.

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I know there’s no perfect way to deal with screens. They’re not going to go away. If anything, they’ll become a mainstay of our kid’s lives. Like the animals of the wild equip their offspring to deal with the big, bad world, It’s our chance to give our kids the mental tools to deal with the flatscreen, frameless, touch-sensitive, predictive future of tomorrow.

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