When I was a kid my parents had some fairly strict guidelines for me as far as how much time I could spend staring at a screen. For a lot of my childhood there were no video games and smart phones were decades away, so it was mostly about television. I was allowed to watch two hours a day unless there was a Houston Rockets or Astros game on, in which case I could watch the game. This was also fairly rare, as back then home games were on a subscription channel we didn’t have. My parents were simply worried about the impact of prolonged exposure to the mesmerizing glowing screen and so encouraged me to do other things.
It seems to have worked out OK. I’ve read more books than the average person, I’ve studied more about the world than most, my IQ was 180 when a colleague asked to make me a guinea pig for such a test, and I can more than hold my own in conversations ranging from movies and sports to metaphysics and politics. I also enjoy playing video games, but admittedly, they get taxing after as short period of time and I find I’d rather be doing something physically active or intellectually stimulating.
The other day I saw some comments from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban about how one of the social media apps (maybe Instagram?) was a great option for his three kids because they would watch highlights of the Mavs since they weren’t about to sit through entire games. This struck me as odd, and since I’ve known Mark for years I asked him about it. I asked him if he thought, perhaps, we were missing a cause and effect relationship with social media and our kids’ short attention spans. My own daughter has a hard time going for 10 minutes without her phone and her social media apps, many of which involve short, meaningless videos that amount to what David Letterman might call Stupid People Tricks. I don’t say this to my daughter, but she often shows me these videos and I always have two questions in my head: “Why did someone bother to film that?” and “Why are you watching it?”
She will ask to watch a movie, but rarely even glance at the screen while it’s on because her eyes are glued to these little videos. We often go to theme parks or the zoo on weekends and I have to set parameters for phone use to keep her present, and it works reasonably well. It helps that she can’t remember to charge the phone, so after a couple of hours it turns into a paperweight in my backpack. Sometimes I can get her to play a video game with me, something like Lego Harry Potter, which at least teaches things like cooperation and problem solving, but sooner or later the draw of the small screen with the short, stupid videos draws her away.
“I don’t see the difference between when we were kids and our parents were worried about TV and what’s happening now,” Mark said. “We just had fewer choices.”
I disagreed initially, but the more I thought about it I realized I walked right into the trap of thinking about my upbringing as being similar to everyone else’s. It’s simply not true, as has been demonstrated to me time and time again since I left the nest and ventured out on my own. I was raised by parents who had Master’s degrees and we spent (and spend) a great deal of our time together discussing philosophical questions and looking for deeper meaning in things. Instead of just answering my questions, they often encourage me to think for myself, study deeply and arrive at my own conclusions. This practice has rendered me largely immune to the vast number of manipulations at work in our society today. So yes, I watched TV and I played video games, but my parents also taught me through our interactions to be a thinking person who is grounded in rationality and reason.
It’s not rational or reasonable to think that I can choose what my daughter will like or dislike. Do I wish she would read some of those library books she brings home instead of watching Stupid People Tricks on social media? Absolutely. If I try to force her to do it will she develop a love of reading? Nope. Parenting is an ever-evolving process, of course, with new challenges every day, but I do believe that by engaging with my daughter and creating opportunities for meaningful conversations she, too, can emerge from the virtual world to be a fulfilled well-rounded person despite what I consider to be way too much time staring at a screen.
After all, my parents had the same concerns and I turned out just fine.