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Children's Television Workaround. Trading TV for YouTube. By Dan Oko for Babble.com.

Personal Essay: Children’s Television Workaround

Our kid’s TV-free, as long as online video doesn’t count. by Dan Oko

May 14, 2009

32

Two years ago, I worried that my yet-unborn daughter might be adversely affected by my television habits. Sure, I’m a fan of Battlestar Galactica and 30 Rock, but I knew as many new parents do that television has been linked with all sorts of developmental ills from childhood obesity to attention deficit disorder, while experts have pretty much debunked the notion of “educational” shows as anything but.

Now, my wife and were not about to watch police procedurals with our newborn, but more to the point we vowed to keep our child away from the cathode tractor beam until she was old enough to have a chance of comprehending what happened on screen. So, I scoffed when a friend slipped us a Baby Einstein DVD. We knew small children need to be entertained by toys, not TV, and cared for by doting parents and grandparents, not by Dora the Explorer, Barney or Mr. Rogers.

To date, we’ve been pretty good about keeping Ursula away from the TV. Unlike some kids I know, she does not walk into strangers’ living rooms and demand the clicker. Still, over the past few months, a disturbing ritual has begun to encroach on my peace of mind.

When I am at home, working on the computer – which is often as I am a full-time, freelance writer – Ursula toddles in with frightening regularity to request a video or two. Of course, this watching started innocently, with me happy to share the occasional music video or wildlife clip with my baby (at least when not facing some mad work deadline). I found it downright adorable that daddy’s little girl wanted to see live-action animals, and was soon daydreaming about a time when we might go on a real African safari, something I did with my father, to see the big cats, elephant and wildebeest in person.

In turn, we became devoted fans of ARKive and National Geographic Kids, primarily, which offer short natural-history videos. I’m happy to report that the videos we watch have no product placement and minimal advertising, while any violence remains modest, such as when a lion kills the occasional gazelle. But, as Ursula approaches her second birthday, the tenor of our conversations has changed. We have expanded to a few classic cartoons, and now my bright-eyed daughter has gone from requesting “nunchees” (her original word for monkeys) to begging for fresh material of all stripes. In the twenty-two months since she was born, I find that I may have created a disturbingly young YouTube addict.

This is a problem for us for two reasons. The first is purely selfish, as having someone claw my leg and bang on my keyboard while screeching for entertainment can and often does derail my ability to work. The bigger problem is that indulging Ursula’s demand for video entertainment goes against virtually every parenting resource that I have found.

The American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly recommends that babies under the age of two watch no television. Meanwhile, childhood-development experts maintain that it makes no difference that our family’s media consumption takes place online; DVDs, film, TV and video games have all been placed under the forbidden, all-encompassing rubric of screen time. “When a child that age watches a video, or television, or goes to a movie, it amounts to the same thing,” opines Dr, Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist and chair of the Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Our kid’s TV-free, as long as online video doesn’t count. by Dan Oko

May 14, 2009

32

I beg to differ. We represent a new generation of parents who are capable of making informed choices about what, where and when their young children watch “televised” entertainment – YouTube, TiVo, iPhone apps and the like give us unprecedented control and choice. Neighborhood friends who have a Kill-Your-Television bumper-sticker on their car recently purchased a DVD player for their kids to watch videos during long road trips and cross-country flights. My sister-in-law confesses that she entertains my niece and nephew in the doctor’s office with YouTube segments downloaded to her iPhone. As with the TeleTubbies and Mickey Mouse, kids love viral videos; however, most parents never bother to watch children’s shows – and that’s yet another way YouTube differs.

Still, let’s be clear, I’m not talking about using computers as babysitters. I recognize that there’s a pitched battle going on for the hearts and minds of America’s children; according to a recent study at the University of Washington in Seattle, an astounding 40 percent of all three-month-olds watch TV. That certainly strikes me as too early for YouTube as well, and I believe that it’s unconscionable for a child who cannot walk to be left in front of any screen, especially without adult supervision. The UW study depressingly jumps to 90 percent of children watching TV by the time they reach two years old.

YouTube can help Ursula get a leg up on a whole host of cultural info-tainment.Yet, I’m still pretty sure that a total prohibition on “screen time” is not what’s needed.

We all know someone who in the dark days of their youth was forbidden to watch television or movies, and now when popular songs and shows refer back they are left clueless. To my mind, YouTube can help Ursula get a leg up on a whole host of cultural info-tainment from wildlife videos to cartoon mash-ups, and she can do so without being exposed to television’s least desirable aspects – commercials. In addition, until she is old enough to type search terms herself, there’s no danger of tripping upon violent or sexual programming without my immediate knowledge. In order to raise her right, I intend to make sure my daughter has all the help she needs while acquiring her new audio-visual literacy.

As for concerns that I may be softening Ursula up for a future Internet addiction, I’ll start worrying if she ceases demanding that we go to the park, another daily occurrence. For now, she has little tolerance for anything more than five minutes long. So long as I’m not racing to meet some fast-approaching deadline, I say: Bring on the nunchees.

Our kid’s TV-free, as long as online video doesn’t count. by Dan Oko

May 14, 2009

32

There are other, less tangible benefits as well.

I still have no idea where I misplaced my front door key, but really it doesn’t matter because we rarely lock the door. My kids can go out at night, and I never worry about their safety.

The wadi (dry riverbed) behind my house preserves the path that our patriarch Abraham walked.

A half hour away, one can find an ancient synagogue and the archaeological remains of an entire abandoned Jewish town, similar to the story of Roanoke in Virginia. Nearby are caves and ruins on the site of the former village of Judah Iscariot.

Jewish holidays are really holidays here. The Sabbath is really a Sabbath, at least in most of the country, and everywhere people wish each other “Shabbat shalom” (A peaceful Sabbath).To be a Jew means to yearn for Israel.

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the streets are filled with people, but also with a peace that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. Not one car on the road regardless of the level of Jewish observance in the community.

And then, of course, there is Jerusalem.

All Jews say at least twice a year in our prayers, “Next year in Jerusalem.” All my life my parents spoke of it, guided us toward it, and taught us that to be a Jew means to yearn for Israel.

It is a passion, a quiet thirst engraved onto our very chromosomes. Just as my heart warms every time I return to the U.S. and the passport control officer says, “Welcome home,” so too do my eyes fill whenever I manage to return to the Western Wall of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

This is where we belong.

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