In the first few months Kaleb and I lived together, he was getting into a band called the pAper chAse. I suppose those capital A’s are meant to look aggressive and sharp and unusual, which is fitting. It’s well-done music, lots of movement and intensity, Kaleb’s favorite kind of stuff. It’s also the first thing I remember asking him to stop listening to. He didn’t, of course, but man, I had to say something, it seemed almost unhealthy. He described it as the soundtrack to a panic attack. The album was called “Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know” (so you can look it up if your panic attack needs a soundtrack). One song in particular stands out in my memory, opening with the pained scream: ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN! ANYTHING CAN GO WRONG!
Becoming a parent opened up a whole new aspect of fear that didn’t exist before for me. There are so many decisions to make, so many flavors of fear to sample from so many angles, so many things that could conceivably go wrong. Sometimes the stakes can seem so dauntingly high. I think motherhood comes with a biologically enhanced ability to imagine horrifying scenarios. Maybe this evolved to keep us on our toes, but it can be paralyzing at times. So one of my biggest personal challenges these days is recognizing when I’m making decisions based on fear rather than love. It’s sometimes hard to sort that out.
Here’s one thing that scares a lot of parents: Too Much Screen Time. Our culture still worships books, and tells a story that learning or experience that happens via a screen is fundamentally inferior, even dangerous. Google “screen time” for a slew of articles/studies on the dangers of screens, each of which concludes that responsible parents should limit screen time for their kids. Have you seen these billboards?
Let’s just bypass the irony of an ad that tells you to unplug your kid by visiting a website about the outdoors. And let me be clear that I’m not anti-kids-touching-frogs; certainly people deserve a chance to experience nature. Yes, go out and Discover the Forest! It’s the whole either/or thing that trips me up here. Is there a good reason to compare playing a video game with holding a frog? Is there anything that says a kid couldn’t do both, or find them both worthwhile? And if one doesn’t like touching slimy jumping things, and prefers manipulating a digital frog, is there something wrong with that? Our nation requires programmers in far greater numbers than herpetologists. And even herpetologists need computer skills to publish their froggy findings. Can’t love for Frogger and love for actual frogs coexist, and even complement each other?
With every new technology comes a new wave of fear. Serial novels rotted the brain; society was losing youngsters to the depravity of recreational reading. By the time Charles Dickens was required reading in schools, there were radio programs to vilify, followed by TV… And here we are with the Internet available anywhere, on tiny screens in our pockets. Their brains! Their eyes! They’ll be ruined if we let them have as much screen time as they want. They’ll spend 24 hours a day glued to media, which is so magically hypnotizing that they’ll never choose to touch real frogs! This is the underlying fear. And it may be true; I don’t have conclusive evidence to the contrary. I just mistrust fear as a basis for decision-making.
One thing I know is that when a thing is limited, it acquires a new and different value. If you never have access to chocolate, and suddenly a big bowl of it appears, you may gorge yourself because you don’t know when your next chance to eat chocolate may be. I’ve seen people whose screen time is limited do the zombie thing; they gorge when they can because they know it’s soon going to be turned off. Many of the studies you’ll find via that “screen time” Google search don’t allow for this factor, and they also don’t distinguish between using screens to escape from reality and using them as a tool to explore the world. They don’t account for whether a parent is engaged in media alongside the child, or using that time as an opportunity to disconnect.
We don’t limit screen time for our 4-year-old son. He can manipulate a trackpad, mouse, and arrow keys, navigate websites, and turn on and focus a projector. He can find his favorite shows on Netflix, or his favorite games on Starfall, Red Fish, Boowa & Kwala, PBS Kids, or Nick Jr. He can add items to his Amazon Wish List (it’s currently 6 pages long, he thinks big). The screen is one tool/activity among many for him. He does often choose to watch shows or play games, and he loves it when we watch and play with him, but if there’s something else interesting going on he often chooses to shut the laptop and join in.
Ten years later, Kaleb and I still occasionally yell ANYTHING CAN GO WRONG! at each other. It’s a good reminder not to descend into panic, to recall the flip side of ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. So far, our kids haven’t turned into drooling obese zombies.
Well, the little one is actually pretty fat and drooly, but we’re not too worried yet.