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What Makes Us Fear For Our Kids? Screen Time Today, Comics, TV, Novels Once Upon a Time

Over on Facebook this morning, I asked my friends:  "So do parents with young kids think it is okay for kids to spend as much time as they want reading comics and graphic novels instead of screen time? (i.e. comics were the "evil" that good parents had to limit and control when I was a kid, along, of course, with TV). I'd love to hear from anyone parenting young kids about what the advice is now re comics."

There came a very long and fascinating list of responses, ranging from "we've never policed anything our kid wanted to do" to "we limit how much screen time our kids have" to "we limit graphic novels too."  I guess the real answer to these questions is now, as it always has been:  it depends upon the kid and it depends upon the parents.  There is no one right or wrong way.  There is trying, against all the odds of our society, to come up with the best ways for our kids . . .


Why this fascinates me is that, finally, the APA has gotten rid of the whole designation "screen time" and changed it simply to "time" with the caveat that good parents need to pay attention to how their kids spend their time and why their kids spend their time the way they do.  This is a very important development.  As long as we blame technlology and police technology, we never get to the bottom of why a child is spending all the time they have on one habit or pasttime or device and not others. 

The real questions should be: What are they interested in?  Why?  What are they avoiding?  Why? And instead of just condemning any one device, be inquisitive about how it is functioning in a child's life:  What does the device allow? What does it prevent? What does it replace? What does it help? What does it hurt?  And how does it do alll of those things differently? How is it being used, for what purpose?

Two examples:  I was having dinner with friends yesterday with two young kids, 11 and 7.  The seven year old was getting way over-excited right before dinner from too much rough-housing and teasing with his brother. Mom brought out the laptop and encouraged him to play a favorite game online that involved some creative photoshopping.  You could feel him calm down, settle in, switch attention from teasing and being teased to concentrating and being creative.  It made for a far nicer dinner and a great change of pace.  "No screens!" would have been exactly wrong in that situation, with that child, at that time.  And the choice of screen focus was perfect for the occasion, the child, the social event.


And then a different example, from my own childhood:  I often tell the story about how my transistor radio broke when I was in 8th grade but I kept my ear plugs in and bopped around to it for at least six months because, hey, what adults were saying to my rebellious adolescent self was not what I wanted to hear and I'd rather that they yelled at me about "get off that radio, you're going to go deaf!" or "that music is going to corrupt your brain!" and all that than whatever else they wanted to tell me. 

Screen time, I'm saying, has the dual function of being infinitely interactive and fascinating and therefore pleasurable--and shutting out parents too.  Perfect . . .


More seriously, because I do think this is a real and serious issue for parents (and I don't have young kids so I don't have to worry about this the way so many parents today need to):  it fascinates me how, in every era, there is something that defines youth--a cultural form, often mediated via technology--that represents the antithesis of adult values.  I wrote one of my first books about this:  Revolution and the Word:  The Rise of the Novel in America was about the cultural freak out that happened when all these women and girls who had not been "remembered" in the new Constitution turned to the new form of the early American novel--to any novel they could get their hands on--for reading.  There is almost nothing about the distractions and addictive qualities of screen time that wasn't said about the early American novel--it certainly ruined your attention, unfit you to real learning, ruined your creativity, destroyed your imagination, made you either a rebel or a conformist, made you unruly or passive, made you prey to sexual predation, made you isolated and lonely and despairing and subject to depression or hyperactivity or suicide.  All that!


Comics and TV were the two things that every parent had to guard against when I was a kid in Chicago and in the suburbs.  We went to a friends' house--her mother worked (!)--and watched all the TV we could stand, every day, after school.  We said we were studying at the library. I was never a reader of comics but I knew friends who read them under the covers, hid them, swapped them, read them by flashlight any time and every time they could.

I should mention that my first husband's mother, Ines Davidson, was a legendary school teacher.  I've written about her before.  She taught  in a 3-room school house in rural Alberta, 200 people in 200 square miles--Mormons, "Jack Mormons," and Blackfeet.  The tiny 3-room shcool house where she taught sent more kids to college and on to PhDs and MDs and vet degrees than anyone in Alberta outside of Calgary and Alberta. There are whole dissertations written about this legendary rural teacher.   How did she do it?  By breaking every rule.

Back when comics were seen as every bit as evil as "screen time," she defied everyone by using comics in her teaching. Indeed, she loved using comics  as a treat and reward and a break in school so kids associated school with what they loved not with what was prohibiting what they lived. She collected them and had a special stash, always, for the kids who not only finished their work first but then helped the other kids who were struggling.  Once everyone "got it" (whatever "it" was), the comics came out. Talk about a motivator!

This included one time putting locks on the school doors to keep out the superintendent during her "Comics Day" where kids--it was an incredibly poor rural area, without electricity--could bring in any comic they wanted and share with the other kids, for a full day, after 100% of them passed the required Provincial test (typically less than 50% of the poor rural and poor First Peoples kids passed these required goverment tests).

She had the kids help one another study for the test, and they all knew that, if they all passed, a Comics Day was their reward. (She knew the REAL reward was in their future but was a good enough teacher not to say that).

Mrs. Davidson did all this in the 1950s and early 1960s!  Comics were anathema to educators then--every bit as hated as screen time now or novels in 1790. 

I'm agnostic on whether parents should or should not limit screen time.  I'm down the the APA in saying good parents should pay attention to all the ways kids spend their time--and how and why.  For some kids, limiting screen time is essential.  For some, that doesn't remotely address the problem, only the symptom of disaffection from other ways of relating to the world.   Like me with the broken transistor radio as a kid, the device wasn't even about listening to rock music all day and all night.  It was about shutting out an adult world that I didn't much want to hear.  The problem was bigger than ear buds.

Mrs. Davidson was a genius at diagnosing the real problem and addressing it.  I suspect if she were alive today that she would have been using computers in schools today in the most creative, collaborative ways imaginable--locking out the superintendents, defying authority, teaching her kids to do the same, and using what was most popular to inspire kids to dream bigger and bolder than Mountain View, Alberta.)

I doubt she'd be into Blackboard but I bet she'd be having her kids watching TED talks and MOOCs and YouTube videos and maybe making their own and contesting the simplistic stuff in their textbooks with more sophisticated stuff, about their age level, that they found on line.  I'm making that up.  I have no way of knowing.  But I know she never met a rule she liked, never met a prohibition she took for granted, and, if it was about putting kids into a box, assuming they were innately bad or limited or evil, she found a workaround.  She hated the idea of "learning disabilities" and always found ingenious ways to teach the kids who other teachers "flunked."   She was tough as nails, had the highest standards, and Fridays were always fun days--where the kids, having done all their school work well in four days and made sure everyone in the class had succeeded, then could have Friday for anything creative they wanted. 

Sometimes that included the most distracting, addictive, worthless, useless, isolating, anti-educational form their was:  comics.   She was convinced comics were at least partly responsible for all the great ways her kids succeeded in school and in life. 


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