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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Screen Time

Whenever I post a comment this long somewhere, I feel obligated to turn it into a blog entry; on G+, Liz Henry was asking (with some bewilderment) about why parents would restrict their children's screen time. Would they restrict access to books?

I am in the very funny position on this of, in principle, being, on the one hand, very skeptical of the lionizing of literature vs. demonization of computer games and believing that computers have revolutionized human life for the better, that they give us superpowers...

And, at the same time, I parent in a household that imposes pretty draconian limits on screen time; for the 7 year old, the basic standard is an hour a day max, and for the 11 year old it's 5 hours a week max (if this seems paradoxical, it's because the 5 hours is totally self-regulated, measured login-to-logoff, and she makes damn sure she gets it, while the 1 hour per day is theoretical and includes lots of "pausing the timer because I am just searching, not playing"). There's then a raft of specific exceptions: extra time for email and blogging or otherwise using the computer as a communications tool, unlimited extra time for homework (and I could be sold on including not-actually-assigned research projects in this category), and liberal exceptions tied to the level of violence in the family (in other words, when nobody is hitting anybody we are "on green" and exceptions are liberal; in the event of fisticuffs we go to yellow, orange or red and strictly enforce rules on, and then further restrict, screen time, sugar, and bedtimes).

Also, I do not just have screen time restrictions for my kids. I have screen time restrictions for me. I do not get on the computer after 7pm (except when day-job work demands my staying late; never at home). I do not get on the computer at home if I am more than 9 chores behind on the (competitive, cumulative, me vs. my wife) chore list. I lock myself out of internet access on all portable computing equipment -- laptop, iphone -- when out of the house. We don't own a TV, and when I have a hankering for an installed client-side computer game, I rent one (every few years) from the library for a month. Although I don't restrict my kid's book time, I do restrict my own; if I'm more than 25 behind on the chore list I don't read at home. (If I'm more than 40 behind I don't play the guitar).

It's hard to know if I'm doing the right thing by my kids in restricting screen time; I go back and forth. It's much easier to tell that I'm doing the right thing by restricting screen time for me -- my life has been made immeasurably better by these rules.

It's also worth noting that our household is driven by a lot of consensus-based negotiation, and the screen time rules were worked out, in discussion, between us and the kids. They aren't purely coercively imposed by fiat; the kids have suggested and successfully argued for changes in the rules, and they'll continue to change over time. These are rules the kids said yes to; they know how to say no. That said, the kids would surely want to have way more screen time if they could simply overrule us. Consensus cuts both ways. [Actually I was wrong about this: see update at the end.]

Part of what's going on is cultural difference. I live in Switzerland. It's not so much that the Swiss relate to technology differently, as that they relate to time, and public and private spheres, differently. Offices are very high-tech; homes are very old-timey. There is a time for each kind of activity. Being online at 3 in the morning is wrong; so is shopping at 3 in the morning. I don't know if this way of life is good or bad; what it is, is, in a modern incarnation, Sabbatarian. It was one of the things I hated most about Switzerland when I first came here, twenty years ago, with my American sense of "god damn it, I want to buy it NOW." It's one of the things I've come to cherish most about life here.

Another piece of this is that while "computers are evil and totally different from books" is absurd, so is "computers are access to information; books are access to information; thus computers=books." It turns out that the shift from horses to cars does require some different traffic rules; same with the shift from painting to cameras -- it's possible to fall asleep and find that your one night-stand has painted your nude portrait, made a lithograph thereof, and posted it as flysheets all around the town, and that may be distressing, but it's not quite the same thing as the modern equivalent. Indeed, much was lost in the transition from oral narrative to text; there's something to be said, perhaps, for camping trips with few books taken along, for reawakening the spirit of storytelling.

But anyway: computers are, frankly, more engrossing than books; more even than TV. This is partly because they are better than books or TV. They are more interactive, more educating, more powerful. This is a good thing. My kids learned more world history in our month-long sprint of playing, and then discussing, Civilization IV every day, than they have in their entire academic career in school. Only because of how powerful and enthralling computers are, were we able to have such an intense period of passionate arguments, so early, about guilds and the development of gunpowder weapons.

But I suspect limited screen time was an aid, rather than an impediment, to this usage. It meant that the kids strategized about how to deploy their computer time, then used it with total focus and abandonment, and then were forced afterwards to regroup and think and talk about it, to process it in while on walks outside and while doing chores, as opposed to simply being immersed in it until their reserves of attention were exhausted.

Because here is the other thing about computers, and particularly the endless jouissance of interlinked education/entertainment/power of modern networked computers: they never get boring. Not for me anyway, and not for my kids either, by observation (and there have been some periods of relatively unlimited computer use by them to test this hypothesis, though I admit that the usual rules do distort the experiment). There is some point at which I will look up from a book, stretch, notice that I am hungry and in need of exercise. When that happens in front of the computer my impulse is to click on something else.

Being bored is actually a really critical part of childhood. I do not want my children to be robbed of being bored. I do not rush in to help them when they are bored -- or I try to suppress my tendency to do so. The moment in which you are bored is the moment in which you begin to create and own your time. Now, obviously, I do not take this theory to the extreme of locking them in lightless padded cells, however wonderful the imaginations they might have would thereby be. But nor am I required to furnish them with any entertainment they wish.

It is easy to say "it is fine to tell children to go outside and play, but what does that have to do with allowing them to websurf?" The thing is, though, that I have found that it does not work very well to issue positive injunctions -- read! play outside! talk to your friends! No one listens to this (nor should they; their time is their own). Bribery has the downside of the corruption effect; variants of "I'll pay you for every time you go play outside", or read, or draw, or whatever, do nothing but turn "playing-outside", or reading or drawing, into work, alienated labor, something done for extrinsic reasons, a game to be rules-lawyered and beaten; they breed contempt. Whereas going from the other side -- restricting, diminishing, or simply not having any of the distractions from the things you want to afford, and then allowing perfect freedom with what's left -- seems to work a lot better.

My kids tend to use the computer as a source of inspiration. They pick their moment, soak up Little House on the Prairie or all the Ben Ten Alien Force they can, then, when it's time to get off, they are thrown back on their own devices; they go play Ben Ten Alien Force outside, concoct period costume dramas in the attic, recruit the neighborhood to design Alien Force paper airplanes. It doesn't feel to me like they are deprived of internet time; it feels like they are using it smart.

Most of my US friends restrict screen time a lot less. Sometimes (Jeremiah Winzell comes to mind... wrong about this too, see comments) their kids seem to totally flourish in a bath of internet. Other times, the parents seem stressed out by what their kids aren't spending their time doing; the internet is the default, and the parents are in a battle to try to lure their kids away from it. The parents feel that the kid, if taken away from the screen, has no other particular thought than to return to it, and the expectation that all of life will be similarly entertaining and frictionless. The kids, in dopamine withdrawl, are sort of frantic. Does this do any permanent harm? Probably not. I survived endless hours of TV. It doesn't seem as much fun, to me, for me, as the way we do it, though.

I would not have predicted my approach as a parent to screen time. It came as quite a surprise to me. This is often the case with processes that evolve organically by many iterations of trial and error and empirical
re-evaluation. I am not prescribing anything. I do not see this as The Way. I find the fact that I am doing it sort of mystifying and, from some perspective, ironically absurd. Proper optimization is highly dependent on local conditions. Differences among kids are vast and salient, as are differences among parents. This seems to work; YMMV.

That was probably a lot longer comment than you wanted. Behold: I've gotten sucked into the internet again...

An update: I showed this to my kids and they objected to the sentence "the kids would surely want to have way more screen time if they could simply overrule us." Turns out that's not true: they both find the 5-hour-a-week rule optimal.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

From a letter to a college student

...who asked me about what classes I liked, and got more of an answer than they were probably expecting (sometimes one releases unseen floodgates); after talking about all the crazy classes I took, from Abraham Abulafia and Shankara to Mary Daly, Susan Griffin, and Judith Plaskow to Derrida, Foucault, Spivak, and Kristeva, to taking any theatrical role they'd cast me in up to and including playing the Man with the Red Ball Nose in an incomprehensible two-person show in a loud bar at RISD, I came to this, and since it's perhaps the best expression I've managed of the odd ambivalence I have towards college nostalgia, and of one aspect of the oddly crucial role that study abroad played in my biography, I thought I would post it here:

This smorgasbord, this intellectual frenzy, was wonderful -- and shaped me intellectually, to be sure -- but also destabilizing. I learned a lot, but in some ways I was miserable. In particular, the insistence of the outside world that these were supposed to be the best years of my life, had a tendency to make me miserable. They weren't. They were important years, though.

One of the best decisions I made was that, sometime freshman year, I decided I really wanted to be fluent in a language. This wasn't something anyone was pushing at me, it wasn't a lionized skill at the time. It just really bugged me that I could only think in one language, and I wanted the experience of being able to think in another. I chose Italian almost at random -- it fit my schedule, and I had a friend from Italy and figured I could practice with her. After a year and a half of Italian classes, I was not the least bit fluent. I had learned plenty of "about" but not very much "to". Mock conversations in class were awkward, and we were happy to retreat from having to use the lived-life part of the brain into the comfortable academic part, and memorize grammar -- which is useless for communicating, at least at first.

So I decided to go to Italy. The entire academic bureaucracy wanted me to go on an American program abroad, in which I would be with Americans, trying to learn Italian. I read students' reports from these programs and they all sounded like "oh Italy was so fun, I met so many great people, the food was great, I just wished I'd learned more Italian, oh well!" There was only one student report, from a student who had enrolled directly in an Italian university -- not with Americans -- who had actually learned the language.

So, junior year, I went to the Italian department and said I wanted to do that. They fought me kicking and screaming. Why would I want to do something so unregulated and quixotic? I eventually had to drop out of Brown for a semester entirely, and simply enroll directly at the University of Siena -- Brown guaranteed me no credit, though if I came back having learned Italian they would retroactively grant credit.

I spent six months there, and I'm still fluent in Italian. But the important part was that it felt like that was the moment in which I actually started to determine my education. Up until then, though it looked like there was a bewildering variety of choice -- this course or that one? -- I had really been sliding along a well-oiled path laid out for me by others, safe and guaranteed. It was kind of a mind-altering experience, a shock, to find this spot in which my august Nobel-littered institution was simply dead wrong and I was right.

At the University of Siena, too, I realized that Brown's emphatic insistence on its own diversity was kind of a crock. It was "diverse" on very well-considered, safe, comfortable lines. Like race, sure; there was an effort to be racially diverse.That meant there was an effort to find people with different external somatic phenotypes who could log the same number of volunteer hours, violin recitals, and gymnastics meets, give the same answers on the same tests so as to get the same GPAs and SAT scores, and write the same sorts of gushy inspiring noble entrace essays as the rest of the students. It was a pretty brittle kind of diversity. At the University of Siena I was with Japanese academic tourists, career-minded proto-technocrats from Brussels, and guys from Chad who used to race camels across the Sahara for fun -- middle class guys from Chad, in other words; because the Unversity of Siena, unlike Brown, actually paid the way of non-jet-set foreign students (the international jet set, particularly the ones who can answer all the questions on those tests the right way, is a pretty homogenous institution).

Anyway, I don't say this to trash Brown. In some ways, returning from Siena, I actually liked Brown better and felt more comfortable there. Rather than seeing it as the apex of intellectual achievement, the one true path, embodying all of human diversity and the species' highest aspirations etc etc, I could see it for what it was: kind of a quirky, bizarre, uniquely Anglo-American institution (an entire walled city where everyone is a scholar between 18 and 25, or else their paid servants?), highly specialized rather than diverse in any real sense, but nonetheless a lovely idea -- a little world of partying scholar-kids dedicated to immersion in a particular ritualized game of semester-long sprints of learning, modest debauchery, activism-in-training, and "gentlemanly pursuits".

It's a beautiful thing, and to be enjoyed. Enjoy it, suck the juice out of it. But where it doesn't fit you, where you and College disagree, you should know that you might actually be right, and that life keeps getting bigger afterwards.

Rereading this, one thing that strikes me -- I touch on it above, but not in detail -- is the way that preprogrammed nostalgia is designed in as part of the product known as the Undergraduate Experience. Going to college I was acutely aware of the nostalgia which was awaiting me, in my future, for the time I was about to have. Indeed I was about to undergo something which was in a sense defined by the nostalgia I would have for it later -- that was somehow almost its core or its organizing principle. There's something very alienating about this aspect of the ritual that we Americans impose upon most of our middle- and owning-class young adults.


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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Thomas Covert, Letter #3

Camp Hutchins, Dec. 3rd, 1861

My Dear Wife:

It is with pleasure that I sit down to let you know that I received your letter last night. I was glad to hear that you was all well, but sorry that you do not get along any better. I shall try to have a part of my wages paid to you monthly. The Captain has promised me the Saddlers place & if I get it, it will be a good thing for me & I hope that I shall get it. We have got our overcoats & boots & will have the rest of our cloths today & tomorrow. I can't come home till after then, but do not look for me till I come, for I don't know when they will send me. I do not feel verry well to day, but I hope that I shall feel better by tomorrow. I was on gard Sunday and cought cold & have a hard pain in my right lung, but I think I shall be well in a day or two. Tell Edie that I take her picture and look at it every day, and that I will come as soon as I can. I send you in this letter one dollar. It is all I have to send. You must excuse me for not writing more as I do not feel very well.

Yours As Ever,

T. M. Covert.

Dictated by Aviva to me on a Saturday morning in Basel, one hundred and fifty years, to the day, after Thomas Covert sent it.

Edie was his daughter. The themes in this letter -- homesickness, health problems, struggles to support the family financially while off at war -- will recur.

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