The Screen: How Acceptable is It?

by Colleen Hammond

Almost any parent alive will agree that violence on television will easily translate into violence in children. Scene after scene of murders, fights, and shootouts has a negative effect on kids — and adults! [1] They see others acting violently and it gives them a model with which to work. And what an evil model.

But when Dennis and I heard that television viewing itself — no matter what the content — also encouraged violence, we resisted. After all, we’ve been known to watch religious movies and an occasional educational DVD or two. (Okay, maybe three.)

Even more startling is that any screen time — be it the television, video games, or computer — drastically decreases academic achievement in children. And we’re not talking about four, six, or eight hours a day in front of the screen. It can be as little as one hour a day.[2]

Uh-oh.

We ditched cable over a decade ago, much to the disbelief of the customer service agent. She really didn’t believe Dennis when he told her that we chose to do family activities instead of “57 Channels and Nothin’ On.” You would have thought Dennis said we didn’t need oxygen anymore! Sadly, we live in a world that considers television a basic necessity like food, water, and shelter. How far is that from Orwell’s 1984?

We thought we were doing a good job monitoring the amount of time we watched television, scrutinizing the purity of the content, and making sure videos and DVDs were either wholesome, educational, or religiously based. Even though we had heard rumors about the value of computer based learning (which I didn’t realize had never been proven), we never implemented it into our Homeschooling.

But a few years ago, we buckled under outside pressure and allowed a couple of goofy computer games into our home. Like the Pied Piper, it cleverly lured our children and pilfered our family time. Last year, we boxed it up and tossed it out. Good riddance!

Then we were back to what we considered limited screen time in our home, even though we still couldn’t escape it at the airport, grocery store, or restaurant. But the availability of solid research has caused us to seriously reconsider the role any sort of Screen-Time deserves in our family. If we were going to have the Idiot Box or any of its dysfunctional relatives in our home, we wanted to use them with proper discernment.

Our initial concern was the “displacement factor” — how does time in front of a screen take away from our time as a family? But the more we researched, the more doubts and questions bubbled into view. Ultimately, we had to determine how being in front of the Screen was affecting our children and our family.

In October 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a paper entitled “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” [3] The first line states that, “Play is essential to development as it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”[4]

In other words, it’s important for children to play, and parents to play with them. But what is the AAP’s definition of ‘play’?

The AAP, which for years has stressed that children under two-years-old receive absolutely no time in front of a screen, says that ‘play time’ needs to be unstructured and imaginative. In other words, when a child wails, “But Mom, I’m bored!” the AAP suggests giving them blocks, modeling clay, puzzles, boxes, paper bags, socks, and dolls or toys without batteries. Better yet, let them devise their own games — or just let them daydream! For older children, the AAP recommends substituting screen time with reading, musical instruments, or pursuing constructive hobbies.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

Our next concern was to determine our children’s needs that were being displaced by spending time in front of the Screen instead of being face-to-face with other children. So what do children really need?

Any parent will tell you that by the age of 2 or 3, a child stops being clingy and begins to explore the world with gusto — thus the need to ‘child-proof’ your home and relocate the family heirlooms. It’s at this point that a child needs to learn self-direction and independence. Since their emotional requirements have been fulfilled and secured during the first two years, inquisitiveness now takes over. Watch out!

This is also the time a child realizes that they can hurt themselves, get into trouble with their parents, or be punched by another toddler. They also learn by trial and error that they must be unselfish — a virtue pretty much erased by Original Sin. When playing with other tots, a domineering, choleric child must learn self-control and to be self-effacing. A quieter, phlegmatic child must learn to be more assertive. How will they ever learn social skills or patience in front of the Screen? If what’s on the Screen isn’t fun, they switch the channel or reboot the computer game to get what they want which reinforces selfishness.

Thinking back a few generations, what would a child do if a crisis ensued — getting punched by another toddler, for example? The youngster would rush back into the safety of Mother’s Arms. A kiss and a hug, and they’re back into the fray! Face-to-face (and fist-to-nose) can never be replaced by the Screen.

But what if Mother’s Arms aren’t available? Today, 45% of mom’s admit that if they have something to do, they’ll use the TV to occupy or baby-sit their child,[5] even though 73% of parents say they would like to limit their children’s TV watching![6] I’m embarrassed to admit this…but I’ve done it, too. Even though I felt guilty, I justified it to myself because we only let them watch wholesome videos. Little did I realize that I was pushing them into the arms of another ‘mother’.

Sadly, the Screen has taken the place of Mother’s Arms in many homes. Plopped in front of a movie, video game, or computer, there is no risk of getting hurt, no risk of getting into trouble, no risk of being punched by another toddler, and no real-life activities that will help them mature into functional adults. Instead of increasing curiosity and social skills, the Screen returns children to a passive state of attachment and dependence — not even dependency to their real Mother, but to the Screen.

Passive state: that struck a cord with us. We know that children in front of a screen are not asleep because their eyes are open. But based on the zombie-like look on their face, they’re not really awake either. Matter of fact, they look like they’re in a drunken stupor!

But Dennis and I were surprised to learn that a person’s metabolic rate will fall lower than when they’re sleeping while in front of a screen. I didn’t realize our metabolic rate could fall lower than when we’re asleep! And did you know that a person just sitting there doing absolutely nothing at all has a significantly higher metabolic rate than your average sofa spud watching television?[7]

Apparently, this came as no surprise to Jack Gould, former television critic for The New York Times. Gould wrote, “Children’s hours on television admittedly are an insidious narcotic for the parent. With the tots fanned out on the floor in front of the receiver, a strange if wonderful quiet seems at hand…” The Times television critic didn’t need a bunch of stuffy scientific studies to make his point. He wrote that back in 1948 when the Black Box was still brand new. Nearly fifty years later, the National Institute of Mental Health issued a statement declaring that, “Television is not an asset and ought to be turned off.”

Despite of (or maybe because of) all the proof, I was starting to feel a bit defensive. At least while playing a video game or computer program which requires interaction, I reasoned, children’s metabolic rates would certainly be higher, right?

Not only was I wrong, the findings were worse than I expected.

Hammersmith Hospital in London used PET scans to monitor the brain activity of volunteers playing video and computer games. Guess what? They found that the production of dopamine doubled during video game play, which was equal to being injected with addictive stimulants such as amphetamines.[8] Evidently, video/computer games really are addictive — and much more than we realized! Now I understand why children’s eyes look glazed and dopey after being in front of the Screen.

Oh, no! This wasn’t adding up in my favor. So I started searching for studies that would prove that computer based learning was advantageous, and found just the opposite. This was getting frustrating.

Studies by the NAEP, Heritage Foundation, U.S. Department of Education, and even the UN[9] have shown that children are better off without a computer. The best thing? Learning to play a musical instrument. Then they can pick up computer skills in their last couple of years of High School. I wonder why no one looked at this research before pulling funds from the music and arts programs and spending billions putting computers in the schools?

In my travels around the country, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many educators of all grade levels. Amazingly they all had the same thing to say — they can tell which students play computer games or spend time watching television at home. How? Because of the child’s inability to communicate clearly, they get annoyed quickly, and they don’t seem to be able to draw clear lines between reality and fantasy. Most noticeable, they tell me, is the student’s lack of initiative — they’re all waiting for directions on what to do. No wonder we have so few real leaders! Everyone is standing around like lemmings waiting to be aimed at a cliff.

Another concern Dennis and I had is that if our children were in front of a screen instead of playing board games or team sports with other rambunctious youth, they wouldn’t learn basic social or verbal skills. Our fears were confirmed.

Studies done by Dr. Harry Chugani, professor of neurology at Wayne State University, have shown that the number of words an infant is exposed to daily is the sole determining factor of later intelligence. But here’s the kicker: the words that come from the radio and television do not work. The words have to come from an attentive, engaged human being.[10] Amazing, eh? Eye-to-eye and face-to-face. Just the way Holy Mother Church has established that the Sacraments be administered.

Isn’t that true for anything in life? A baseball game, for example. Nothing beats being there in person.

What ranks second to being face-to-face with a child and conversing with them? Reading a good book, which helps a child develop their imagination and abstract thinking. Did you know that the average children’s picture book comes with a more advanced vocabulary than most prime-time television shows?[11] It should come as no surprise that a bed-time story is more educational and enlightening (not to mention fun!) than a video or DVD. Imagine what amazing vocabulary an adolescent book contains compared to the Screen!

Speaking of teen-agers, the sad fact is that many young adults spend even more time in front of the Screen than their younger brothers and sisters. Although they would never admit this, a vast majority of teenagers are craving more time with their parents![12] And these young adults are suffering the consequences of their parent’s inattentiveness. Of 12th-graders who spend a paltry one hour a day in front of a screen, only 52% of them achieved reading proficiency. As Screen Time increased, reading scores decreased. [13]

My research to justify any Screen-Time in our family kept running into brick walls, and I finally admitted defeat. I was convinced. And, quite frankly, I’d been lying to myself about how much time I spent in front of a computer. Besides, we started to notice that our daily dialogue and dinner conversation was sprinkled with stories about the dunderheads from the various screens in our home. We wanted better for our children!

Dennis and I needed a game plan.

We figured that the best way to motivate our family to get off the Screen was to make it a father-led family project and offer it up as a sacrifice during Advent or Lent. After the paternal penance project of going cold turkey for a few weeks and experiencing the joys of a screen-free life, we thought it would be easier to take the next step.

So we prepared. We stocked up with books from the library. We planned out how we would feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. We’d focus on bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving injuries. We dusted off some games and purchased a few great Radio Theater programs and audio books to listen to.

The first few days were a bit rough, but by the end of the week life settled into a pleasant hum. Daily conversation centered around dissecting great literature; we grew closer together as a family as we felt the grace from performing Works of Mercy; we listened to a new tune someone plunked out on the piano; the screech of recorders gradually mellowed into recognizable duets; and we found a few new board games that have since become family favorites.

We had a few surprises, too. We exercised more as family walks and outdoor games increased. We ate better, as we spent more time searching through books for fun recipes. Most glorious of all was that bickering decreased.

I must admit, we still have a DVD player in our home. But we have developed strict rules so that we control the Idiot Box and it does not control us. The only ‘violence’ and discord around here now is not generated by the Screen — it’s generated by the richness and hum of family life. That is acceptable!

[1] American Psychological Association, 2000. “Psychiatric Effects of Media Violence.” APA Factsheet Series.

[2] US Dept. of Education. “Strong Families, Strong Schools, Building Community Partnerships for Learning.” 1994.

[3] http://www.aap.org/pressroom/playfinal.pdf

[4] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989. Available at: http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc.htm

[5] “Zero to Six: Elecontronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers,” Kaiser Family Foundation, Fall 2003

[6] US Department of Education, 1994

[7] Study monitoring metabolic rates: Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter, June 1992. http://www.tvturnoff.org/images/facts&figs/factsheets/FactsFigs.pdf

[8] Eugene F. Provenzo Jr., Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo, Cambridege, Massachussetts: Harvard U. Press, 1991. Quoted by Marie Winn, The Plug-In Drug, New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2002, pg. 195.

[9] For a detailed analysis, see Marie Winn, The Plug-In Drug, New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2002, pgs. 165-185.

[10] Three studies quoted by Marie Winn, The Plug-In Drug, New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2002, p. 69: Harry I. Chugani, M.E.Phelps and J.C. Mazziotta, “Positron Emission Tomography Study of Human Brain Function Development,” Annals of Neurology, vol. 22, 1987, p. 487-497. Sandra Blakeslee, “studies Show Talking with Infants Shapes Basis of Ability to Think,” The New York Times, April 17, 1997. Wiesel and Hubel, “Effects of Visual Deprivation on Morphology and Physiology of Cell in Cats’ Lateral Geniculate Body,” Journal of Neurophysiology, Vol. 26, 1963.

[11] Carol H. Rasco, 2000. “A Smarter Summer: Less TV.” Burlington Record 6/14/00 http://www.tvturnoff.org/images/facts&figs/factsheets/Hazardous.pdf

[12] According to a Newsweek poll, 73% of teens would like to spend more time with their parents: “Teenagers Want More . . . Family Time?” Christian Science Monitor 5/2/00.

[13] National Center for Education Statistics, 1999. NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. Quoted at http://www.tvturnoff.org/images/facts&figs/factsheets/Hazardous.pdf

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TV Turnoff Tips (from the TV Turnoff Network)

  • Keep the TV off during meals.
  • Exercise as a family by taking walks, riding bikes, or learning a sport.
  • Move your television to a less prominent location.
  • Designate certain days of the week as TV-free days.
  • Do not use television as a reward.
  • Remove the TV set from your child’s bedroom.
  • Hide the remote.
  • Don’t worry if children say they are bored. Boredom passes and often leads to creativity.
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