As an Attachment Parenting and unschooling coach, I commonly hear the following, "My unschooled children spend hours a day watching TV and playing video games- Should I just let them?"
While many unschooling advocates approve of regular, daily video game and TV use as part of unschooling, I strongly disagree. My son and I both choose not to play video games or watch TV at home at all.
My son, Brycen dislikes TV, home video gaming, Facebook, social media, texting ...and he won't buy a cell phone. However, he isn't devoid of media. He runs a state-wide Dungeons and Dragons campaign via Skype and he uses Skype to conference call with friends who live in separate locations. He researches music, art, history and science online and enjoys exploring music and chainmaille technique on YouTube. He watches movies with me, we bust out the Nintendo DS on airplane trips and we both enjoy our summer treks to the beaches and their vintage arcades. So why don't I recommend TV and video games?
The brain science
There are numerous studies indicating that the brain goes into a hypnotized, numbed, suggestible, brain-depressed state when watching TV and playing video games. The body is generally sedentary when playing video games and watching TV. In contrast, when reading a book, even if the child is physically sedentary, the brain is fired up, stimulated and activated in every region. When reading, imagination flows, critical thinking is strong and readers feel elevated and engaged when the book is put down. After watching TV or playing video games, a sense of slight lethargy or restlessness comes over the viewer when the screen is turned off. The effects of stimulating the right brain while shutting down reasoning ability makes viewers more susceptible to suggestion, propaganda and mainstream cultural conditioning. In fact, the TV advertising industry successfully invests billions of dollars into exploiting these very effects on the brain!
Regardless of whether or not studies can be generalized conclusively with children not subjected to public school, a regular diet of TV and video games has physical, emotional, social and cultural consequences. Sedentary hours staring at a screen's small field of vision, being fed violent, sarcastic, dehumanizing and materialistic messages and being onslaughted with incessant "gotta have more" advertising interferes with cultivating compassion, critical thinking, face-to-face socialization time and physically active, hands-on pursuits. While unschoolers demonstrate that genius is common, human brains and bodies are vulnerable, unschooled or not.
TV is entirely passive and one-sided, with one goal in mind: Getting you to buy, watch and believe something. TV is perhaps the most insidious of all media because of this passive effect and the negative implications of a passive, distracted population on culture and democracy. One of my primary concerns about TV are the increasingly negative, aggressive, violent, sarcastic and apathetic themes and behavior portrayed in children's cartoons and shows. Themes of one-upping, hurting and mocking others seem to dominate every show.
Some of the most damaging themes in youth programming include:
- Pain as comical,
- Human suffering as a joke,
- Pink saturation of girls,
- Hatred of boys,
- Polarization of gender,
- Polarization of "good" and "evil",
- Dehumanizing "the bad guy/bad girl",
- Justifying the violence of "the good girl/good guy",
- Following the crowd and the masses,
- Discouraging critical thinking,
- Omitting compassion for others, and
- Mocking sex and the human body
Girls portrayed as "divas" or as entitled emotional bullys and boys portrayed as incompetent buffoons or as socially acceptable targets of abuse shape our children's view of gender and gender roles. The constant mockery and objectification of the human body, bodily functions and human sexuality shames our sons and daughters and shapes their views of themselves and others. Justifying protagonist violence and discouraging empathy for the antagonist conditions our culture to accept conflict, aggression, rudeness, divisiveness and war in the name of some "noble" cause.
For those of us who have left behind the mainstream in order to pursue more organic, authentic ways of living through Attachment Parenting, unschooling, organic eating, holistic health, naturopathic medicine, peaceful communication and higher consciousness, why would we not question the mainstream culture's number one way of controlling and shaping the population?
Home video games
Video games simulate reality while your body sits either totally passively or it moves according to commands on the screen. While video games are fun and hone hand-eye coordination, they carry far more risks than benefits. Not only are today's video games graphically violent (which can cause mild trauma in children), their addictive qualities have increased with the popularity of live and online gaming. As a former video gamer myself, if the old games could easily suck up an entire day, today's games demonstrate no restraint in the amount of a youth's childhood time they steal. Unlike developing real skills in real life, video games seduce players into a virtual world of building skills and embarking on adventures that are meaningless and mere mirages once the switch is turned off. In other words, Kinect Sports doesn't prepare you to play a real game of tennis anymore than Guitar Hero III teaches you to play a real guitar.
The EPICoutures, former video gamers
Prior to Brycen joining my life through adoption, he spent hours each day with TV and video games. He remembers years of being unable to focus on play because he was craving to watch a show or play video games- and he remembers the media "zombie effect" similar to Adderall. TV wasn't an option when Brycen joined my life- I simply did not have cable. He was, however, in awe at my collection of game systems. How could I deny him the option to play them when I clearly was a gamer myself? Video games were initially kept to a minimum in our home; a half hour per day by mutual agreement and eventually, only on weekends. Even still, I could see that Brycen would become restless and hover by the TV, sometimes for an hour or more before the agreed-upon video game time, being unable to focus on outdoor or indoor play. While video gaming, he looked entranced and he was unresponsive, regardless of whether or not I flamboyantly joined in the game, whether or not he "versed" a friend or played alone.
I recall debating whether or not to ban video gaming all together. However, as a democratic parent who parents with respect and for connection, I knew a ban would harm our relationship and only increase the video games' allure.
Brycen made the decision to stop playing video games when we began our unschooling journey together, after our adoption was legalized- In our early days of unschooling, he was too young and emotionally tender to leave home alone. On days when my child care plan fell through, I would take him to work with me.
One day, he accompanied me to a professional conference. He had art supplies, toys, books and paper and plenty of room to explore, lots of breaks with me outside, plus a building filled with adults in the mental health field to talk to who lit up to see a child. However, he often chose to attend the professional workshops with me, and seemed to grasp the Master's and Doctorate-level information with ease! He listened in on the workshop about media's effects on the human brain. While taking a break and running around the conference grounds, he kept dialoging with me about his concerns about TV and video games, how he felt while gaming and how some children watch TV and play video games for hours a day and no longer play with toys. On the drive home, he said, "Mom, I want to stop playing video games. I don't want you to let me play them anymore."
We did some further research at home together to get multiple views of the effects on the body and brain of video games, and he stood his ground. His only exceptions were times when guests would find and pull out one of our game systems. Now, Brycen doesn't let anyone even know we have the game systems!
So while our game system collection and our out-dated analog TV set might be bored and feeling neglected, Brycen has the full span of hours each day to fill with healthy, active living. When he uses the Internet for Skype and research, he generally chooses to use it at the end of his day, or as a reference to an activity of which he is already engaged. He expresses his concern for the youth who spend hours gaming with strangers over XBox Live, cultivating unhealthy self care habits. It hasn't escaped Brycen's notice that most people in our culture spend more time watching shows about the outdoors or using a control pad to simulate physical activities than actually being outside and doing real activities!
Lest someone believe that I don't understand the allure and excitement of video games and TV, I grew up with the TV as background noise. I am a video gamer, a vintage game system collector and I am still the unofficial, undefeated Tetris Master. I have played everything from Odyssey and Atari to the DS and the Wii and when I see an arcade asking for a few minutes of my time, I'm there. However, my home and my free time are sacred spaces where I will not invite that kind of outside control or the seduction of addiction. It stuns me that despite my years of detoxing from TV, when I am in a public building with a TV on, I can feel my eyes and attention being drawn up to the screen, entranced by the lightening fast images and constantly shifting video bites. That old sticky sense of "just look for another moment to see what happens next" doesn't take long to return if I stare for more than a moment. That's not just how TV effects me, its how TV effects the human brain.
Keeping media in its place
In the year 2012, media is a part of our culture's daily existence. It forms collective memes, shapes culture, influences cultural beliefs and it unifies the globe at the click of a button. Media is a powerful- even necessary- tool for learning, researching, networking and quickly disseminating information in today's world. It can cause grassroots human rights actions to go viral, it can spread charity, connect people and it can help people build careers. As an author and parenting coach and the manager of my son's band project, I have found that YouTube, Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, Google+, ReverbNation and search engines are invaluable resources for connecting with a world wide audience and building our family's careers.
It is clear that most of us in the Western world need connection to some form of media in order to engage and function in our culture, especially those of us who run businesses and are artists and human rights activists. So where do we draw the line? What are the health, medical, social and cultural implications of using media excessively? How do we help our children make healthier choices about media? It is critical that we answer these questions by thinking outside of the box.
Reflecting on what we want for our children
If you still believe that regular TV watching and daily video gaming are harmless for your children, please reflect on the following questions:
At what point would you be concerned?
Would your children be able to easily "turn it off" for a month without missing the TV/Video games?
Do your children still play dramatically outside and with toys or is video gaming their primary mode of "play"?
If you believe that public school, mainstream parenting, the pharmaceutical industry, the food industry, the medical industry and our political system are toxic, why would the media be any less toxic?
If you disagree with the toxic "socialization" in public school, why expose your children to the toxic socialization themes, memes and models shown on most of the TV shows?
What would you do if TV weren't used as a "babysitter"?
How would your children fill their time if they weren't playing video games or watching TV? What would you do together as a family?
Would you watch your favorite shows on DVD to eliminate commercials?
Could any benefits that you see in TV and video games be obtained in a more natural, hands on manner?
How is TV shaping your child's view of people, material objects and the world?
What behaviors would you have to see in your children before you were convinced that TV and video games were having a negative effect on them?
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