He knows the answer will usually be no. I allow Felix to watch TV for about 45 minutes before lunch. (If 45 minutes sounds like a strange amount of time, it’s actually based on his attention span. He can watch two episodes of a 22 minute long show like Curious George, or one longer program or movie for about the same length of time before getting bored.)
When he’s tired, or if we’ve been busy playing beforehand, he spaces out in front of the screen, going slack-jawed and wide-eyed, his expression flat and dazed. Ask what he was watching and he’ll tell you only the broad strokes. George was on the beach. George got in trouble. Doing what? “I don’t remember.”
Most days, he’s a more active watcher, evidenced by how he asks, “Do you want to watch with me, Da-da?” Sitting down with him reveals how much of the program is just out of his reach. “What is George doing? Where is the Man with the Yellow Hat?” No wonder he only remembers the broad strokes that’s all he’s getting.
Watching with him, it’s obvious to me that he’s learning about stories, and how to understand them, and people too — their feelings, motivations, expressions. And yet, if I turn the game around and ask him what’s happening, he’ll say, “Not now, Da-da. I’m watching.”
Interesting, eh? Make TV watching into an explicitly educational activity — you watch, I ask you questions to probe your understanding— and it’s not fun anymore. Allow him to ask questions when and about whatever he wants, and suddenly he’s learning and enjoying himself; learning because he’s enjoying himself.
Ditto reading a book. Show him a letter or two, ok. Start breaking down the book into words and letters and punctuation like it’s some grammar lesson, forget it! Way to suck all the enjoyment out of things, Dad.
An interesting in article in The Atlantic “The Touch-Screen Generation,” by Hanna Rosin explores how we expose kids to technology, a topic I took up last week, focusing on the smartphone. Rosin spends more time talking about iPads, which we don’t have in our home, but she addresses television watching, too.
Rosin says that the myth that television “rots your brain” has been debunked by studies. The brain shows similar activity when watching television as it does when reading a book. (Makes sense to me. Watching a show like Deadwood, Game of Thrones, or House of Cards stimulates my mind as much as a gripping novel.)
Kids, however, especially young ones, tend to pick information up better from real people than from a video screen. In part, they need the back-and-forth of an actual exchange, which is why a program like Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer try to simulate a conversation with your kids — the character directly asks questions and then pauses for the child to respond. No wonder my son wants me with him when he’s watching a show. I’ll answer his questions about what Curious George is doing, the animated monkey will not.
This isn’t to say that you should think of television watching as an educational experience. The term “educational” can be elusive when applied to media, as it can be for all sorts of valuable activities. Being shown how to form a letter A is educational, but what about digging holes on the beach? Building a pillow fort and hosting a stuffed animal birthday party? Playing a game, whether that be a board game or an iPad game? TV watching is a “soft” educational experience. You can’t always explicitly pull out what the child’s learned, but the brain’s been engaged, and they’re picking things up. I certainly get defensive when someone tells me that reading is only entertainment — I get a lot out of a good book, emotionally and intellectually, and if I talk about it with my wife and friends, socially too. Not every outcome can be discretely atomized and measured.
One thing Rosin doesn’t address in her article is the issue of power. Whether reading a book, watching a TV program, or playing an iPad game, there has been an author-creator who designed the experience, and there is, for lack of a better term, a passive-recipient who engages with it. Kids seem to be empowered by so-called interactive games to make decisions, but those choices have been pre-shaped by the game developers and programers.
Just as kids should be writing their own stories and painting their own pictures so that they can understand the skill involved in those arts and the power that the author has in creating feeling and meaning for the recipient, so too should kids be exposed to basic computer programming concepts, learning how to manipulate and build within the digital space themselves. They should make their own TV shows too, with help. Kids who are active creators are, I believe, more savvy in their media consumption, wary of the way corporations and authority figures sometimes play on their emotions and twist the truth in order to make a profit or conceal the truth.
So don’t just use the television or your smartphone, or iPad or tablet computer as a babysitter, at least not all the time. Sit with your kids and answer their questions. Model how to be an engaged, active watcher and game player. And then turn off the device to get involved creating games and shows of your own.
The problem with technology isn’t inherent to technology itself, but in being passive, a sheep in the digital flock. With help, your child can be a media wolf: hungry, passionate, and clever.