Growing up we had two television sets in our home: a tiny black and white box in my parent’s bedroom and a larger screen in our basement family room. In my house right now we have 3 TV sets — one in our bedroom, one in our family room and one in a basement playroom. The average American home has 3 TVs and most watch a minimum of 5 hours per day. However I took a different count when thinking about this post and that is the number of “screens” in our house. We have a total of 12 screens in the house — 3 smartphones, 2 laptops, 2 tablets, 2 iPods and 3 TVs. Today you need to think in terms of “screens” and not “sets”. Screen time is a constant battle.
When my 13 year-old disappears upstairs to “shower”, she takes her iPhone. She likes to play music, dance and sing while shampooing. Fortunately, she doesn’t always take too long because she invariably has more important things to do… like texting, Instagramming, Snap Chatting, and such, but when she becomes quiet for say more than a half hour I know something’s up. Typically, she’ll get sucked into watching Vines or YouTube videos or maybe clips from “The Office” (her latest find).
According to the a National Center for Health Services (NCHS) report from 2012:
Excessive screen-time behaviors, such as using a computer and watching TV, for more than 2 hours daily have been linked with elevated blood pressure, elevated serum cholesterol, and being overweight or obese among youth (1–3). Additionally, screen-time behavior established in adolescence has been shown to track into adulthood (4). The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute- supported Expert Panel and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that children limit leisure screen time to 2 hours or less daily (5,6). This report presents national estimates of TV watching and computer use outside of the school day.
While I know my daughter does not even come close to the 2-hour limit, I still notice that the persistent handheld screen represents a profound distraction. She is an active kid (soccer, dance, track) and she eats and sleeps well. Ever since she was a baby she’s known for herself when “enough is enough” and sometimes this can actually be annoying. For example, a few months back we were catching up on American Idol with her — we tend to DVR shows and watch them on the weekend — with 5 minutes left in the episode she announces, “I’m gonna brush my teeth,” and leaves the room. This is her way of saying: “I’m going to bed,” and she does this with movies, TV sitcoms, you name it.
One thing I have noticed though is the phone, for whatever reason it is harder to abandon. Even if she’s brushing her teeth it is right there. She sits with the phone in bed and texts until we confiscate it at lights out. Numerous studies indicate that cell phone usage for teens is risky during bedtime. The persistent glow of the screens may reduce melatonin levels and a Japanese study seemed to demonstrate a link between cell phone usage after “lights out” and an increase in thoughts of self-harming, alcohol use and obvious effects from sleep deprivation.
No screens after lights out has always been our policy — no phones, no Kindle, no laptop, no tablet, no iPod – in short: No screens. This certainly pissed off my oldest when she was in high school but that child needed sleep. Left to her own devices (pun intended) she’d have stayed up to 3 am fussing with nonsense. In fact we proved that point when, as a test we allowed her to have the devices for a period of time, perhaps a couple days or a week, maybe. Just as my wife thought it was a disaster. When you have to catch the bus at 5:30 am staying up until 3 is really, well, stupid. But kids are, for all intents and purposes stupid. It’s our job to overrule what they believe is the reasonable plea of, “But I won’t use the phone, honest!” When the damn thing lights up, buzzes and chirps you are going to check the phone; we know that. We also know that checking it, looking at it, reading whatever it’s chirping about amounts to use, even if you don’t text back.
Additionally, some studies indicate that all of this exposure to screens has a particular effect on young girls. Those that spend excessive amounts of their day engaged in screen time are exposed to images that affect perception of body image and self-esteem. For me this is the more problematic aspect of these mobile media devices. And, make no mistake that is what phones have become. Privacy advocates have strongly suggested, as of late, that parents must work to protect our kids’ data — in all forms — so as to limit the amount of marketing geared directly towards them.
Micro-media in particular — Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, YouTube — troubles me as a parent due its lack of context. Narrative, in the traditional sense of an arc, does not exist in these visual forms. We manufacture narrative and context as the viewer. While philosophically and artistically I am not opposed to this notion, it takes a certain degree of maturity to execute a “non-contextual” narrative, a cognitive maturity I feel many teens lack.
We all yearn for context, however, and this is why I suspect SnapChat allows for users to create “SnapChat Stories” — basically a saved collection of photos that whomever you are SnapChatting can view. This defeats the purpose of the self-destructing SnapChat but it does speak to our need to weave a narrative, to build context. Thing is, every story needs a character and therein lies the parenting dilemma of wondering: who is my child being, what is she displaying, to whom is she displaying it, and what is the context for the display?
We’ve all heard the horror stories of the inappropriate “selfies” disseminated through cyber-space, but worse for me is the context out of which they are created. What, in the mind of a teenager makes such a display allowable? This not only applies to girls but boys as well.
Some might prefer to think I am making a big deal out of nothing. It’s much easier if you think that device is just a phone. But it is not. Other readers of a certain age remember what a phone is, or was. A phone is a plastic box attached to a wall with a corded handset that was constantly in need of untangling. With that phone you could do one thing — talk to someone. You could not send a text or an infinite number of duck-faced selfies. You could not shoot video, update Facebook, or watch NetFlix. No, it was a phone. Not a computer, nor a TV. So, I suppose in my house the rules for the smartphone are now the same rules as for the TV.
Now, brush your teeth and go to bed; lights out in five.
About Tony and Christina – Anthony and Christina Amore are the husband and wife team behind The Plagued Parent. In addition to blogging about parenting issues involved in raising teen daughters, their work also includes social commentary, fiction and poetry. They are college professors who live and teach in southern Rhode Island. You can read more from Tony and Christina at their home site, as well as follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
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