Monday, March 26, 2007

Unschooling Voices: Screen Time

Unschooling Voices, a blog carnival hosted at A Day in Our Lives asks this question for the April edition:

A topic that comes up on the unschooling e-mail groups a lot is TV/computer/video games and how hard it is for parents to let go of control in those areas. What has been your experience?

I think the biggest challenge when thinking about screen time (my all-encompassing word for TV/Computer/Gameboys/Video Games) as an unschooling family is the cultural notion of the television as "the boob tube" and video games as "mind rotting". Dating back to at least my own childhood, the media has been decrying the screen as some kind of intellect-sucking device that somehow evilly inserts itself into one's home without one's knowledge and seduces our children away from us. And you know, I can see some truth to these things. I think that there is much on television that really isn't appropriate for kids to be viewing. Heck, I think there's much on TV that really isn't appropriate for adults to be viewing! And the video games like Grand Theft Auto or the other first-person-shooter games, well I find them fairly horrifying (and they get worse, in the new Wii games, you can use the cool new Wii remote to actually choke your victim on the screen, instead of just blasting them to pieces).

So the challenge comes when you take the concept of unschooling, that kids can make their own decisions, and you apply it to something with such a wide variety of content and moral lattitude and try to make a sensible decision. At first, we were wary about screen usage and in fact had not had cable TV even for ourselves before having kids. I grew up with very limited television and didn't find that experience to be detrimental, so I didn't see any reason to start introducing it when our first child was still in his younger years. Of course, he had other ideas, especially once he discovered the Thomas the Tank Engine video section at our local library! What we discovered was that anything we watched with him became a shared experience like anything else, and that the shows that we watched together always provided fodder for discussion and further inquiry. I remember once when our railroad-obsessed toddler and I were standing by some old rusting locomotives on a siding and he pointed out to me that the engine nearest us was a "Mallet". I had no idea what he was talking about, but he patiently informed me in his little two year old voice that this locomotive had two sets of driving wheels, and thus was classified as a Mallet (something he'd learned from one of his train videos). I was amazed by how much knowledge and interest he was deriving from these beloved videos, even at his very young age.

As he grew and his interests branched out, every age brought new challenges to our comfort level with the screen. From Thomas videos to wanting to see Lord of the Rings at age six, and from Gameboys to more complex systems and games, we've had to revisit our feelings about the content and maturity of games and movies. What we found though was that our kids were very adept at self-regulating. They knew what bothered them and what didn't, and would even stop in the middle of a movie or game if they found themselves in over their head. My son really enjoyed Lord of the Rings, for instance, but couldn't bring himself to watch 101 Dalmations, because the theme involved killing puppies and he found that abhorrent. Yet 101 Dalmations carries a G rating, while Lord of the Rings is PG-13. We've never found that the ratings systems were very meaningful when kids know their own tolerances.

A good example of our child-led approach is Lord of the Rings, which came out when our kids were 3 and 6 years old. They saw it in stages over the course of several years. At first neither of them felt comfortable seeing it in a theatre, after asking my husband and I to view it first and report back to them on the scariness factor (high, it gave my husband nightmares.) So we first viewed it on DVD and they told me when to pause the movie and either fast-forward or let them leave the room. We had read the books though as bedtime stories, and they were as entranced as I was with the screen adaptation, and willing to sacrifice bits and pieces of the movie in order to see the story brought to life on the screen. We also watched and discussed the DVD extras, seeing how the special effects were created, how the orcs were stunt men in heavy makeup and costumes, and how the computer graphics were integrated into the whole. The next year when the second film of the trilogy came out, M. (now seven) wanted to go see it in the theatre, but A. (at four years old) did not. So we waited until it came to our $1 theatre, so that if M. just wanted to leave in the middle of it, we wouldn't really be out much (this is a fabulous strategy if you have such a theatre available, because it's really no loss to just get up and walk away, whereas if you've invested $25 in seeing a movie as a family, you can feel a lot more pressured to stay.) M. enjoyed it, and again A. waiting until the DVD came out. By the time the third movie was out 18 months later, we all went to see it in the theatre together.

I saw the same ability to self-regulate apply itself time after time. When it comes to playing games, using the handheld gaming systems, or watching TV or movies, the kids are very good at knowing what feels appropriate for them, and when they've had enough. Of course, this doesn't happen in a vacuum. Like every decision in their lives, they have us right there beside them to discuss the pros and cons, and to give context and meaning for movies or storylines that they might otherwise not understand, and to provide a sounding board for their own thoughts about what they feel is appropriate, as well as our own opinions based on our life experiences as adults. Whether it is a prolonged discussion about violence in the media, providing historical or moral background for what they are viewing, or talking about the way corporations insert advertisements and product placements into shows, they are not having to come to terms with the media by themselves. Moreover, because we have a relationship based on mutual trust and respect, instead of power and control, they trust our opinions and will frequently ask us to tell them if a movie is something we think they would like, or something that might disturb them.

Recently, we went through the latest step in this Screen Time Saga when our son requested a James Bond 007 game for the Gamecube video system. This would be the first time he played a first-person-shooter game, so we had a discussion with him about our concerns (largely involving the desensitization to violence that can happen, as well as concerns about handgun safety and having the knowledge that guns are never toys.) When he got the video game, he and his sister had a blast playing it, blowing away all the bad guys, while I sat back and quietly bit my lip. I also told him that it was not a game that I myself felt comfortable playing (though I've played other Gamecube games with the kids) because handgun violence is just not something I'm personally comfortable with. Within days though, the game had lost its glamour, and within a couple of weeks he re-sold it to the gaming shop. I wondered in my head what would've happened if, instead of discussing it with him and letting him follow his own lead, we would've banned the game and forbidden him to play it. He spends plenty of time at friends' houses these days, and undoubtably would've come across the game, or a similar one, at some point. When that happened, the game would've been doubly attractive as "forbidden fruit", and knowing that we had forbidden such play, he might've chosen to lie to us or omit telling us that he had played it. A wedge of distrust would've grown between us, instead of the closer bond of discussion and mutual respect.

In the end, that's really the biggest benefit to approaching screen time as we do any other aspect of life. When we provide context, meaningful discussion, voice our own concerns, and listen to our children's input, we give them the power to make good decisions for themselves (or perhaps even bad decisions, which might be a learning experience on its own.) If instead, we forbid such devices and programs, there's no guarantees that our children won't eventually find them anyways. When they do, it may be in a secretive and guilty way, instead of a joy-filled sharing way. Personally, I'd rather share in my children's joy and have interesting discussions with them about what we're watching.

Just this week, my son and I watched the fabulous movie The Prestige together. And there's no one I would've rather watched that movie with than my Sherlock Holmes-like son! We enjoyed dissecting the plot as we went, and reveled in the fact that we guessed the plot's twists before they were revealed. Since this movie is PG-13, most parents I know would've forbidden their kids from seeing it based on the rating alone, yet I know that the effects of watching it together were all positive. And my daughter? It wasn't her cup of tea, so she watched a Disney movie upstairs.

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