Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 11, 2007

Toons, Tubes, Tetris and Tots

Well, I’m learnin’. Learnin’ what kinds of blog references in this pop-culture-infused, search-engine-driven age get you the most hits (so far, Bart Simpson’s kickin’ butt on old farts like Carl Yasztremski, Gene Kelly, any and all political figures, even Spiderman… maybe too much competition for Spider-Sensitive eyes this week).

Also learnin’ how all my pre-existing, high-falutin’ academic ideas about TV, the media and children start to play out here in the real world… starting with my own child. For instance, Our Man Graham has barely picked up a book on his own initiative in months now, ever since we started giving him more freedom and time to play educational games and view material at the PBS Kids website and, more recently, the Disney Playhouse site.

The material there is certainly age-appropriate, and the games and activities are engaging. It’s nothing like giving a five-year-old access to a first-person-shooter video game. In fact, I’m sure he’s learning both skills and information, including pre-reading skills. But at what cost? As far as developing a habit for heavily-mediated entertainment, or sedentary, non-creative activities, I’m not sure how far we should let him go.

My sister Karen asked me a few months back what the big deal is, why I would be concerned about PBS Kids. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I know we have to cut back even on the high quality stuff, given how utterly devoted he tends to become. I also know from direct experience that the steady kind of attention and neuro-motor activity one has to give to a video or computer game can have a sort of numbing, addictive quality to it. Since I was a teen, occasionally I’ve tried going to bed after several hours of playing the old Lode Runner  game on computer, or Madden Football on Playstation, only to have little men continuing to run rampant through my brain.

I’m no doctor, but I do know from limited work in communication sciences and linguistics that these neural pathways are serious business. To put a developing five-year-old’s brain on a steady habit of electronica, and mouse-work –and then to add in the endorphins or other hormonal stuff that happens– is dicey, maybe even dangerous to his healthy overall development. Add in all that tv-news hype about the growth in childhood obesity, and it’s an easy call to make: using television, computers or video games as babysitters is a bad idea. Tempting, when you see the kid learning, but it’s still a passive activity in some cases, or a repetitive activity, and not conducive to either creative thinking or good old-fashioned exercise.

Last night when I brought Graham home and he asked on the way in the front door if we could go to the park, I said maybe. But by the time he had gone to the bathroom, and I had put away my things, he had hopped back onto the computer again (without asking, which he’s still supposed to do). All thoughts of the park had vanished when his opportunity for the Glowing Friendship Network presented itself.

I’m not sure how to proceed, because like most parents, Sue and I get pretty busy and/or fatigued, making it that much harder to occupy the children. Plus we want time for ourselves, or our own hobbies. So I can’t throw stones at any parent, for I am among the sinners. But setting some limits, hard as it is, has got to be the first step.

I love Bart Simpson to death. But I don’t want my kid growing up to look or act anything like him–unsupervised, self-involved, and a first-class brat. Plus, of course, that would make me Homer… which is not funny at all. Doh!


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