A parent and a philosopher shares his thoughts on the screen time and the content we're feeding our children with.
For a while, I have intended to write a comment on the cartoons that children watch these days. Today’s new discovery - Stillwater, a production by Apple TV+ has inspired me to sit down and finally write a few words. These short stories (episodes last about 30 min) are based on the characters from children’s books by Jon J Muth. Three children and their neighbour, a large and friendly panda bear called Stillwater. The children are facing different challenges and find comfort in their neighbour’s stories told in a manner of a classic Zen master. Stillwater is a great listener and a storyteller and his stories carry on morals that help to change children’s perspective on the situation they’ve found themselves in. Additionally, Stillwater teaches kids some useful skills like mindfulness. With pleasure, we as parents watched these cartoons with our children, and appreciated the story, the message and the presentation.
In our house, where we raise two of our boys (age 5 and 11) the TV is on quite often as we are also working from home and days with kids not going to school are much longer. TV is often an easy solution for us to have a quiet moment to work. Both of us who grew up in the 1980s/1990s in Poland were exposed to rather different content that our children are exposed now and that often worries us. Another other problem is the amount of time spent on screens. The recent survey of 3000 thousand parents by Parents Together showed that average time screen time doubled during the pandemic and a 500 % increase spent online on platforms like YouTube, Netflix, and TikTok.
I’m not trying to say here all the content on the popular streaming networks is bad, but yet when I look at the general tendency, I feel like we’re feeding generations of young people with the content that is not bringing anything of value into their world while also overstimulating their nervous system with too much to bare. And with the amount of content out there, the good stuff is just getting lost.
And it’s not only a nostalgia for the auld good days that speaks here but rather a real concern. As a parent, I thought I’d like to share a few thoughts on the matter.
The first big difference that comes to my mind when comparing things, we use to watch back then and what the kids are watching now is the pace. Most of the cartoons these days are such fast-paced pieces that are hard to follow. Not that there were no fast-paced stories before of course. I remember a visit to one of my aunties in Germany in the 1990s where they’ve switched on some Disney cartoons to keep me entertained, the old auntie complained she couldn’t follow what is actually happening on the screen at all. Nevertheless, I’m under the impression that the cartoons are even much faster than back then.
Together with the pace also comes the intensity, the accompanying sounds are very loud and very often tend to be character screaming at each other for no sensible reason. The colours are sharp and the sounds are loud. The bombardment of audio and visual stimulation is unbearable altogether.
The third thing that I’ve noticed and worries me as a parent is that the storytelling is very poor or painfully meaning-less. The stories do not present any values and ideals, like the ones that most of probably would love to expose our children to like compassion, respect towards others and the world around, nobility, self-reliance and restraint. The characters are very often very simplistic and the use of slapstick humour is just omnipresent.
Here is a list by Common Sense Media with recommendations for children of different age groups.
Nevertheless, this type of content is entertaining for children. The fast-paced action keeps the mind stimulated and aroused with hits of various hormones related to environmental stressors. Additionally, we also, as a society, have the problem of supervision (as we are busy on our own devices) and that very often children have other available devices at hand. From talking to children and other parents it seems obvious that watching TV and playing some kind of game on other devices is rather not that odd these days. Here, I would only like to touch on the ‘gamers’ phenomena, something that I can’t really grasp. There so many people who spend their times playing games, very often talking in a childish language of excitement, and are being admired by countless children and young people all over the world. Whatever happened to your own achievements on your Nintendo, eh…?
I might be too old to understand what is actually happening there and what’s so attractive about it for the children, but my concern lies with the fact, considering time spent on YouTube type of never-ending gaming shows, that those people are in fact role models for the younger generations. Fair play to those gamers who did cop on this fact. Very often children are exposed more to the language and reactions of the gamers than their own parents. I’ll leave it here…
Boredom in children is another challenge that many parents are struggling with and solve by just allowing more screen time. Obviously, boredom is something we’ve all faced at some stage in our lives but the ability to cope with it becomes much harder for the younger generations who are constantly exposed to the highly stimulating content. Not sure if that’s the best metaphor, but apparently when the sound of a loud explosion hits you, the ringing in the ears is so overwhelming, you can’t hear or focus on anything else. This is similar to what happens when the children (and adults) who spend too much on devices, being overstimulated by the information flow pouring out of the magic boxes, the ability to focus on other activities and the lack of high levels of sense stimulation makes everything look bleak and unattractive. Luckily, from experimenting on our children I know that, given little time, children regain interest in doing other things and engaging in more embodied activities. And the creativity comes back.
The amount of technology we’ve surrounded ourselves with, the content we let our children consume and what it does to their development, begs for our attention indeed.
I will not say anything revolutionary here by stating the simple fact that our bodies and brains developed over millions of years to survive in a totally different environment. The natural world is a world of a different rhythm and requires our bodies to participate in reality. But I’m not at all against technology as I do enjoy and embrace it, coming from a generation who witnessed the rise of technology, from TV to smartphones and VR. I’m no stranger to it and have no illusions how amazingly it connected the world and created countless opportunities for being creative and improving our lives. But we need to become more mindful to all this and come up with some strategies to live with technology in a meaningful and productive way.
So after all this rant here are few tips to keep our children sane:
- set the rules and limit time on screens (duh!)
- filter the content of what your children watch or play (all devices these days come with some sort of filtering options)
- supervise what your children watch
- watch stuff together
- play the games together (it can be lots of fun and create a sense of shared reality)
- try to play some games the children watch gamers playing and challenge yourselves to complete it without watching a ‘walkthrough’
- talk to your children about the stories you’ve watched together to find a deeper meaning and connect it to the reality of our own lives
- do a “no device” day or week where children will need to be bored so much they’ll naturally start doing something else
- read them a book instead of watching a film based on the story from the book
- have an art corner where children can go always go to and draw, paint etc (works well in our house)
- play a board game or card game (we love Dixit)
- get kids to learn coding instead of playing games
Some shows and films we’ve recently watched and our kids enjoyed watching:
- the new amazing series Stillwater (Apple TV+) inspired by Zen tradition and Jon J Muth books for children
- the old good Neverending Story
- Forky asks a question (by PIXAR on Disney+)
- What’s the Big Idea (you can find it on YouTube)
- Avatar series
- Ask the StoryBots on Netflix
- Puffin Rock (Irish production for younger audiences)
- Ghibli anime films like Totoro, Spirited Away and others (available on Netflix)
- Song of the Sea (Irish production on Amazon Prime)
- The Secret of Kells (French-Belgian-Irish production)
- The Wolfwalkers (New Irish production available on Apple TV+)
- Wall-e (Disney)
- Frozen II (Disney)
- Moana (Disney)
- Inside out (Disney)
- Disney Zenimation Series
- Up (Disney)
- Brave (Disney)
- I Wonder (Stampy on YouTube)