Banning the boxes – life with minimal screen time

We don’t have a T.V.

Or any devices such as pads, pods or whatnots, for the children to get sucked into.

We’re not complete Luddites – Mr S and I have mobile phones that are very smart and do all sorts of things as well as make calls, and we have laptops on which we can watch DVDs and selected stuff on the internet. But we do just fine without a T.V. and without any other gadgets to occupy our kids. I suppose the title of this post is a bit misleading actually – we haven’t exactly banned boxes, we just started out without them…

We stopped paying for a T.V. licence and got rid of the box many years ago, much to the shock, horror and astonishment of Mr S’s parents (are you allowed to do that? – um, yes, it’s not a legal requirement!), when we decided it was a unnecessary expense. In fairness, I grew up without a T.V., so life with one in the living room was a bit alien to me, and the prospect of life without one wasn’t scary at all. Mr S was a bit worried about missing out on sport, but thanks to the internet and the radio, he can keep up to date, and if there’s a big match or something on, he’s been known to pop to the pub for a few jars.

We wanted our kids to grow up free from that all-pervasive distraction, to stare at the trees and the sky instead of a screen. Yes, perhaps it was a drastic move, but it’s saved us a tonne of money and time over the years.

It’s not that we don’t “watch stuff” – we love watching films together as a family, looking up things online and use a few internet-based education resources.  I’d be the first to say that there’s nothing like snuggling up together on a wintery wet afternoon with a favourite DVD and a jug of hot chocolate, and if someone is poorly, then kipping on a cosy sofa in front of a film is a wonderful treat. And we learn so much through the things we research via a screen. Plus, I’m not pretending I’m a saintly mother – of course I’ve popped on a DVD when the Bods start niggling at each other and I can’t throw them out in the garden and I need to get stuff done. But screen time in our house is selective and contained, and generally a communal activity.

Ofcom produced this big report on media use and attitudes in 2017. It makes for some interesting reading. The upshot is that children are spending increasing amounts of time peering into screens at increasingly younger ages. Yes, of course we all know this  – but delve a bit deeper into the stats and some of it is a bit alarming – 96% of 3-4 year olds spend 15hrs a week watching T.V…. 12-15 years olds spend a little less time watching T.V. than 3-4 year olds , but 99% of them spend 21hrs a week online as well. The report goes on – all 306 pages of it…and if you’re interested there’s another hefty report here by Unicef on the impact of all this screen time on children’s wellbeing (summary – a little bit is ok, but a lot is negative). We’re looking at a world where, increasingly, and for a variety of reasons, a large portion of childhood is being experienced via a screen. This is an interesting article that pulls together lots of research and also points out that it’s not just children who are spending too much time on devices, but adults are guilty too. It warns us against “technology-based interruptions in parent-child interactions” or “technoference”, “which seems to correlate with children being more prone to whining, sulking, restlessness, frustration and outbursts of temper.” A sobering phenomenom.

I know there’s the argument that kids need to be exposed to technology so that they become tech-savvy and suitably equipped for the digital age. But to some point I disagree. Technology is increasingly intuitive, by design, and I believe that someone brought up to love learning will pick up whatever skills they need when they require them. Looking back at our generation, maybe we didn’t have a computer in our homes until our teens but we’ve learnt what we’ve needed as we’ve gone along. Okay, I can’t programme stuff and I still think the internet is a bit like magic, but I can make it work for me sometimes. (I suppose I am very lucky, being married to an IT guy, who’s foray into computers started in 1983 with his Commodore 64 (still in our loft) and went on from there – he does know how the internet works and dashes in to fix it for me when I break it ;P )

There are, of course, further arguments against bringing up your children with restricted access to technology…what about the cultural currency of shared love of popular media? And yes, I kind of get that – growing up without a T.V. myself meant that I genuinely didn’t ‘get’ what most of my classmates were on about some of the time and, still to this day, friends might mention things from way back that I “missed out” on. But I did other stuff instead and I might sound like a total snob here, but a lot of what passes for entertainment is pretty mediocre, apart from the odd gem that is worth going out of your way for – so, to be honest, I don’t feel that I missed out at all.

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Another reason for restricting screen time is the heartfelt wish that our children are not unwittingly sucked into consumer society before becoming conscious, and this really hit home to me a while back when we watched the ITV series Victoria on ITVplayer (see – we can still be “current”, just 24hrs later than everyone else!). The girls love anything to do with the Victorians so we thought we’d give it a whirl.  They got happily drawn into the plot and the luscious period detail and then it all stopped for an ad break. “Arrrrggggghhhh!” wailed Bod7, “what’s happened?? Was that it????” No, we explained, it’s an advert break. Then came the barrage of questions – what’s an advert? why do they have to put them in the middle of films? why would they do that? what are they trying to sell? how are they trying to sell things? but we don’t want cars and perfume – why would they try to sell that stuff to us? Now I confess to feeling a teensy bit delighted that my girls had got to the respectable ages of 9 and 6 without having seen an advert. And we approached it as a learning opportunity – we discussed how advertising works and why companies advertise. We looked critically at each advert, identifying the product and the methods used to sell it. They wised up pretty quickly to how they were being manipulated and found some of the attempts quite amusing!

Living without a T.V. and electronic devices teaches you to be pretty self sufficient. I speak from experience. I spent most of my formative years reading and making stuff and playing and mucking about. I never get bored because I can always find Something To Do, and failing that I can always just Be. And that’s what I notice with my children. They’re so busy, all the time. Playing, reading, creating, making music, building worlds, making mess, being outside, moving, learning – you know, a whole list of productive verbs. And that is probably the best thing about not having boxes – when the children disappear off and get busy, I rest safe in the knowledge that whatever they’re doing is productive or creative, usually both, (certainly messy) and whatever it is that they are up to, they are learning something right for them in that moment. And we spend a fair amount of time staring at trees and the sky. So far that part of the plan is working….

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Cathy xxxxx

 

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