Every morning, after getting up, emptying his bowels and painstakingly bestowing at least four spoonfuls of yogurt onto the living-room carpet, my 15-month-old son turns and jabs a stubby finger in the general direction of our television.
“Dis!” he cries insistently. “DIS.”
As a TV addict myself—someone so far gone that she actually paid for an iTunes season pass to Denise Richards: It’s Complicated—I can’t help but feel a pang of pride. But then I am reminded of the newspaper clippings my mother sends me, thin columns of sanctimonious Times Cheltenham type that decry “screen time,” especially before age 2, as a developmental kryptonite on a par with exposure to secondhand smoke, or being shot out of a cannon. (Incidentally, my mother also likes to remind me that she was born before television, when bored children had to clip out judgmental newspaper articles for fun.)
And so I hedge, offering Sam more yogurt, or crayons, or any of his approximately 5,000 educational toys. Sometimes, though I’m not proud of it, I’ll even use my breasts to distract him. Anything to avoid opening Pandora’s cable box.
In a world where cigarillo-smoking toddlers become Internet memes and 7-year-olds are hitting puberty thanks to some combination of phthalates and Big Macs, shielding kids from the lethargic delights of television and the brain-numbing pursuits of the iPhone and the iPad appears to be the last bastion of hope for preserving some semblance of the classic Rockwellian American childhood.
But it’s not just nostalgia driving the charge to unplug; the increasingly fast editing of modern entertainment supposedly short-circuits their little brains, making attention-span issues and learning disorders more likely, and prohibiting healthier pursuits like exercise and human interaction. As recently as November, the lead author of an American Academy of Pediatrics study about the effects of media on children took to NPR to rattle off the risks: obesity, aggression, impaired socialization. And that’s just from SpongeBob. Imagine if someone let them watch Bravo.
To combat this first-world problem, some parents adopt trendy, third-world-inspired lives of modified asceticism, chucking their electronics, defecting from popular culture and engaging their children in hours of play with the sorts of all-natural, unpainted wooden toys that might have turned up in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stocking on a particularly lean Christmas. I know not one but two separate moms who have made their own Play-Doh just to avoid letting their little ones handle unnatural dyes.
But I’m more of a realist, and not just about my inability to ferment my own kefir. Now that adults live most of their lives online, keeping kids in the digital dark is close to impossible. There’s nothing I can do to stop the frightening evolution of technology, and Sam’s going to have to keep up if he wants to get a job developing DIY caesarean section smartphone apps or whatever the latest craze turns out to be in 2033, after we’ve finished downloading college into his brain stem. Also, I literally cannot move my TV, having bolted it to the table in a fit of babyproofing. So rather than shelter him entirely, I try to temper my hypocrisy with some compromise.
I have a fondness for the Sesame Street of my youth (possibly enhanced by some irresponsible drug-fueled YouTubing in my 20s), so when I was pregnant, my husband and I ordered a set of “old-school” DVDs from Amazon, reasoning that if our son had to watch the idiot box, at least we could expose him to the slower pace and wholesome values of a simpler time, when no one asked questions if Gordon found a stray child on the corner and led her back to his brownstone for some soup. Or, on alternate mornings, I let Sam watch a 10-year-old copy of Baby Einstein I borrowed from my sister-in-law, which is basically an infant version of the rehabilitation inflicted on Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. As images of lemon slices, sock puppets and perpetual-motion toys flash on-screen, one wonders how, exactly, a lava lamp relates to the space-time continuum.
To combat the passivity of the viewing experience, I have resorted to loudly narrating the events on-screen in order to make it “interactive.”
“THAT’S BOB,” I yell into Sam’s tiny ear. “HE’S MAKING A CALL FROM A PAY PHONE, WHICH IS SOMETHING PEOPLE IN OLDEN TIMES USED FOR TELECOMMUNICATION AND SUBWAY URINALS!” Or, “THIS NEVER-ENDING CLIP OF A PIPE CLEANER AFFIXED TO A METRONOME IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE YOU SMARTER. IS IT WORKING?”
“Dis,” he affirms, not breaking his staring contest with the flatscreen. Sam most enjoys watching television from a distance of approximately one inch while standing and resting his chin on the entertainment center. If I want to lure him back to the couch, I need to leave trails of snacks, not unlike the witch from Hansel and Gretel.
I can tell there’s no going back. I can certainly impose stricter time limits or switch up the content, but now that he’s had a taste, there’s no way I’ll be able to avoid it entirely until he turns 2. In my weaker moments I let myself wonder … what if screen time is actually good for small children?
A quick Google search basically reveals an Internet facepalm in response to this theory, but the pendulum always swings back and forth on these things … after all, Baby Einstein wouldn’t even exist for us to mock if not for a huge group of people who honestly believed watching a set of shockingly low-production-value videos would make babies more intelligent. I’m not arguing that TV makes anyone smarter, per se, but what if it makes them, like, really good at happy hour quiz nights and less likely to get skin cancer? Unsurprisingly, there is no scientific study to back me up on this, so I’ll have to fall back on two pieces of anecdotal evidence.
1982: After watching Ben and Me, a Walt Disney cartoon about Benjamin Franklin, I am able to quote the Declaration of Independence from memory.
1984: I am not allowed to watch TV while in the care of my 30-something male babysitter. Instead, I page through R. Crumb comics that feature a naked man crawling inside a giant woman’s vagina. (Are you happy, mom and dad? I bet a half hour of Diff’rent Strokes is looking pretty good right about now.)
Perhaps I’m protesting too much because television serves my specific circumstances quite well. Since I write from home in sporadic bursts, the brief periods of child-hypnosis TV offers allow me to do things like shower, finish a cup of coffee and tweet about how strangely attracted I am to Luis, Sesame Street’s 1970s-era handyman. The more time I have to write, the more money I’ll be able to save for the IV drip of Adderall that I’m sure will be de rigueur by the time Sam reaches grade school. Right? Or maybe I’m just a lazy, weak-willed mom who needs to take up woodworking instead of spending so much time trying to illegally download season seven of Dexter.
Like Denise Richards taught me, it’s complicated.
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