According to a recent study in the pediatrics edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the average child between infancy and the age of 2 watched more than three hours of television a day in 2014, an increase of more than double since 1997. Goodness knows where things stand today, when children consume "content" via smartphone or tablets they know how to control themselves in restaurants, on airplanes, in car-seats and even shopping carts.
You don't need medical journals to tell you that something has changed. Children are living in a technologically augmented reality — not from adolescence or young adulthood, when they might be old enough to have some say in the matter, but from birth onward. As usual, the medical establishment that was there to assure that marijuana absolutely never ever could in any way be bad for us and that ADHD and other medically designated aggregates of symptoms were ordinary diseases like diabetes, is assuring us that all this screen time isn't "necessarily" a bad thing.
What nonsense. All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box after your parents press two buttons — or, more likely, without any apparent human effort at all, thanks to an infinite algorithmically generated playlist: This is an experience as familiar to them as the sound of rain. Gone even are such old-fashioned restrictions on entertainment as "This is the half hour that Mr. Rogers is on, after that it's a painting show" or "We had to bring Lion King back to the video store." No human being has ever seen the world the way our babies do now. How can we possibly say with any certainty that it isn't bad for them? At least those of us who grew up before the technological revolution can remember what life was like before we woke up every morning with an uncontrollable urge to play with magic boxes. They may never.
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When I was growing up we didn't have this problem. For a brief spell when I was 7 we had cable — then one day the channels weren't showing up because there was no money for the bill. I barely noticed because most of my life was spent in cornfields or carrying a rusty golf club through the barn hunting for bats. By the time we had 24/7 access to the Cartoon Network again years later, I was more interested in strumming bad renditions of Led Zeppelin deep cuts or reading something out of the Vonnegut-Pynchon angsty teen canon. In either case, I was probably outside while doing it.
This is the part where I get to explain what thoughtful, intelligent middle-class parents my wife and I are. We don't let our three children watch rubbish, you see. We carefully decide what VHS tape — white hipster cred! — we are going to show them: usually a Disney classic. The whole thing is carefully controlled. They won't accidentally end up seeing Minnie Mouse get decapitated.
Good for us. As usual the problem is that we have the time, the energy, and the resources — intellectual, financial, spiritual — to make these decisions for the good of our children. Limiting kids' screen time is now, as Suzanne Moore has pointed out, another social signifier. Every dumb thing that comes along gets rejected sooner or later by smart people — baby formula, Wonder Bread, electric stoves — and rich people who listen to smart people. Everyone else gets stuck with it.
Children deserve universal love, not being loved alone by parents whose membership in the aspirational creative class allows them the free time to think through questions like "Does my toddler really need to spend three hours a day watching cartoon dogs blow each other up?" Unfortunately in this country we don't have the benevolent imperial leadership of France, where President Emmanuel Macron recently banned cellphones from middle schools. Progress is going to have to be made by individual parents or not at all.
Thank goodness it's really not that hard. Yes, you might be bored of having the same conversation about the neighbor's cat 60 times in a row. You might think that whatever it is you want to be doing — probably messing around with your own screen — is important enough to justify sitting the toddler down in front of YouTube Kids for another half hour. You might guess, correctly, that an episode of Abby Hatcher is more likely to keep your 3-year-old still and away from the stove while you're making dinner than a wooden puzzle. But what about when you're not doing anything in particular?
One increasingly has the sense that many parents, especially those who work outside the home, don't know what to do with their children. How about teaching them their letters, their shapes, counting, phonics? Or just playing dinosaurs for 10 more minutes and not worrying about checking your work email?
Parenting is as tedious as it is rewarding. Nothing, not even millions of hours of sparkly CGI sharks, can be a substitute for it.
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