Dear Ms. Smartphone: Perhaps this is a generational issue. We live in a multigen household and my seven-year old spends hours each day online. My Mom thinks this is OK because when I was her age, I watched TV all the time. That helped me learn English as a second language. Mom says kids should be kids so my daughter should have her online time. But I think she is saying this because it has become an electronic babysitter for her. Is screen time equal? Does it matter if it is spent in front of a TV or using a laptop or phone? Priya, Berkeley
Dear Priya: Indeed, this is a generational issue and also a lifestyle one. It’s hard to imagine what parents did before TV to find a moment of respite. Hail to the electronic babysitter! But screen time is not equal. It does matter whether the electronic babysitter is a TV or a different device. There are a couple of things that distinguish TV time back then and going online today. Talk them over with Mom and consider that you are lucky she is not a virtual grandparent!
When you grew up, you probably watched television in a set room in a set spot. In bigger homes it was called the TV room, typically on the first floor off the kitchen where Mom could keep an eye on things. But, the key is not the room, but the dynamic of watching. An adult could drop in on the programming and listen with their third ear. On weekends, during dinner, or evenings, the entire family used this space to come together and view communally.
Using media with grown-ups around is important. Parents help children interpret the content and learn the conventions, for example, what is an ad and how does persuasion work. Or say watching a football game together and explaining the actions of the referees. Young kids process ‘how to watch’ from observing their parents. It’s a lot like driving. Even though you don’t get your license until you are sixteen, you absorb a lot of information about managing a vehicle before you come of age.
Think of it this way: you would not allow a salesman to knock on your front door, boldly walk in and start proselytizing to you seven-year old. More likely, your foot would be in the door jam, blocking full entry. But that is what is happening. Your seven-year old might be upstairs with their tablet or other device, connecting more intimately to people beyond the household than to those in it.
Spending time alone with electronic devices is a far cry from the time when family members connected in a shared space to watch TV. Your Mom may not have considered this difference.
How and When too:
But, there’s more. The other lifestyle issue is how and when media are available. Your Mom (or her Mom) might recall a time when television broadcasts signed off at midnight, or programming was limited to certain times in the evening. Significantly, cartoons and programming for children were chunked into special time slots. That made parent’s more comfortable with using the electronic babysitter.
Today, there’s a rating system and it takes vigilance on the part of parents to manage age-appropriate material, so many parents play movies and videos instead. Screening for the Internet is a trickier process. Content can go almost anywhere with a few clicks and when there are no temporal boundaries, scrolling has no bounds.
So, yes, it does come down to generational differences, lifestyle differences, and also, a new technology. Since you live in a multigen household, encourage your Mom to watch TV with your daughter and choose suitable programs. But, if you think there is too much screen time period, suggest that they set some common goals, get outdoors, or take up a shared hobby.
Meanwhile, a good starting place might be to convert the TV room, if you have one, into a more communal spot where you all come together to browse on your electronic devices. Or, set up this space on the kitchen table, if that is what is available. Insist for now, that you participate together and have a glance over the collective shoulder. No child should be left behind, when behind means a closed door in a closed room.