Posted by: ithacaisdoomed | March 27, 2010

Screen Screed

TV, yeah it’s always on
The flicker on the screen
A movie actress screams
I’m basking in the shit flowing out of it
-Porcupine Tree

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a closet basket case. I try to keep it hidden, and most of the time, I’m successful. Parenting, though, has given me new frontiers of anxieties so strong that sometimes the genie gets out of the bottle. My latest parenting anxiety: Screen time.

Porcupine Tree, Fear of a Blank Planet

Not just television, but the sum total amount of time my kid spends sitting in front of computers and cathode ray tubes. I’ve been asking all my parenting friends about their “rules” regarding screen time, hoping that they won’t catch on to the hidden message of my own anxiety, and that I might keep my sense of being a superior parent at the same time.
It’s funny, by most standards, “sheeple” standards, we’re already total freaks. My wife and I got rid of our TV at least 15 years ago, sold it to some poor old bastard who probably watched it while dying the slow death caused by the American lifestyle. We consider it one of the best things we’ve ever done and have never regretted it. We watch movies on the computer and recently acquired a portable DVD player, ostensibly for car trips. YouTube is a guilty pleasure from time to time.

As far as our son goes, the main things to avoid were any advertising, violence, and sexually suggestive imagery. This even applies to books; as a recent STAR WARS Return of the Jedi adaptation  was rejected for featuring a picture of the bikini clad Princess Leia. I know what that image did to my youth. I certainly don’t need my son’s subconscious to be haunted by the sight of a scantily clad woman being yanked around on a chain by a fat toad worm.  He might turn into one of these people…

It was actually his aunt and uncle who hooked our son on YouTube, feeding into his dual obsessions with cats and trains when he was about four. I hold myself blameless, of course. After that, our vigilance about screen time has slowly eroded, and now, we’re probably looking at an hour or two a day spent watching train DVD’s, educational DVD’s, or Lego train movies on YouTube. I quickly learned not to allow YouTube time unattended as sometimes, some highly inappropriate content gets inserted into the menus along with all the more innocuous stuff. God, am I ever glad the “homebirth” movie phase is over!

So what the hell’s your problem, you ask? My kid has basically avoided commercial advertising, violent imagery, and pictures of scantily clad women. (Though, he draws women with gigantic breasts. Perhaps this is an archetypal thing, like the Venus of Willendorf?) The problem is this: We recently asked some friends of ours how much screen time they allow their kids per week. These are friends whose parenting I respect. They were there long before us, so they seem like pros. Their answer: One session with a screen per week.  This could be a feature-length film or simply playing a game on the computer.

See, it’s not just about the content…it’s the mere fact of the flickering screen and its effect on the human brain, especially that super vulnerable, developing child brain. In the movie, The Tube, Dr. Thomas Mulholland from Lundenberg,  Massachussetts is featured for his pioneering research into the effects of television on the human brain.. His experiments with electroencephalograms and alpha waves with children were some of the first indications of an actual physical reaction to watching TV. Alpha waves are brain activity which increases as brain work decreases: closing your eyes and relaxing produces more alpha — looking around the room decreases alpha. Mulholland discovered that children watching TV had more alpha — which means less brain activity.  Here is an article about such effects on the brain.

Am I idly standing by while my child gets turned into a zombie?  I have seen that glassy-eyed stare, the hypnotic affect, and the irritability which comes after the Tube gets turned off.  Could it be that there is absolutely nothing innocuous whatsoever about spending time in front of screens, no matter what is showing upon them? 

We decided it was time to implement some better limits.  We are going for the one screen session a week rule, regardless of whether our son watches a DVD or a music video on YouTube.  (His genius father got him hooked on “The Safety Dance”, by Men Without Hats.)  On the first night, after explaining the rule, my son opted to watch his DVD of the week.    So far, so good:  he hasn’t really even asked about it. 

One side effect of this new rule is that my wife and I must now limit our own screen time.  We have to serve as good role models, and all that.  I certainly don’t want to be one of those “don’t do as I do, do as I say” types.  Perhaps there’s something to this?

  My son and I were playing Legos the other day.  He was building away, letting his imagination run wild.  He asked me to build something, anything.  I didn’t even know where to begin.  All these Lego bricks were before me, and all I could do was sit and passively wait for some inspiration, as though my own imagination was stunted from lack of use.

A recent post on the forum over at Life After the Oil Crash asked the question, “What would you be like if you had never watched TV?”  My son lives in a world where people have actually walked into traffic because they were staring at  portable screens, where people tend imaginary crops playing Farmville, and where rabid marketers with PhD’s in Pediatric Development scheme to occupy space in his mind.  And it’s only getting worse, as even pop (Pahp) cans may soon feature tiny screens to increase advertising time.  Over-educated people with truly evil minds are plotting to insinuate screens into every aspect of our lives.

For me, rewilding is about getting back in touch with an all too abstract entity known as “reality.”  I can say for certain that watching  television and other time spent in front of screens has been part of the barrier, a root cause for the need to “get back in touch” with reality, rather than already “being there.”  I don’t want my son to have to find out what is real when he is an adult.  I want him to already know.

So what do you do?  If you’re a parent, what are your rules governing “screen time?”  If you’re not a parent, what would they be?



  1. You know, it’s funny. On January 2nd of this year, I resolved to unsubscribe to my premium cable channels. After doing so, my time spent reading tripled and I found myself not even turning on the tube for days at a time.
    A couple of weeks ago, however, I got an ad from Comcast that I couldn’t resist: Get HBO for a year for $5! I signed up and am sad to say that I’m watching a lot more television at the expense of reading.
    Is it mere coincidence that $5 is also the street price for a hit of crack?

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