I’m a little concerned about my grandchildren. I worry that when they are in their twenties, no one will want them as trivia teammates. Or when they are hanging out with other 40-something couples, they will fade into the wallpaper when the conversation turns to, “Remember that episode of Big Bang Theory when … .”
The 5½-year-old and the 8-year-old have grown up in a household that has never had a TV, and the 10- and 12-year-old are surviving with a cable connection so basic that it barely gets more than a few shopping channels and the local school board meetings.
This situation is not the direct result of the TV environments in which their parents grew up. While we were among the last families in the neighborhood with a color TV, we did watch TV. We did put some limits on TV viewing, and our children were in their late teens before they realized that our TV was capable of receiving cartoons on Saturday mornings. They thought this kind of special connection existed only in motel rooms. Other than putting a few restrictions on TV viewing, we weren’t militant supervisors of our children’s viewing habits.
Our children were just too busy doing things to watch much TV. Now as adults they have been paying attention to what they have heard and read about the potential negative influence that TV may have on their own children, and imposed restrictions far more severe than those under which they were raised. It has been interesting to watch how their children are responding to these TV-deprived environments.
For the most part, there has been no whining or begging to turn on the TV. The younger two have no other option and don’t realize what they are missing. The older two, who watched some Sesame Street as toddlers, have been similarly disinterested, although my 10-year-old grandson enjoys watching some sports when the opportunity arises.
So what do my grandchildren do with the 28 hours each week that their peers are spending in front of a TV (“ Television and Children ,” University of Michigan Medical School/Michigan Medicine website)? The two older girls are voracious readers. One spends hours drawing, and with her younger sister, always has a craft project or two going. The older two are skillful board and card game players, and they play musical instruments. All four are involved in at least one sport per season, and when asked, they would prefer to be playing something outside. And they go to bed at a healthy hour.
In a recent article in AAP News (“How to provide evidence-based pediatric care for the digital age,” May 2017), Michael O. Rich, MD, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media, writes, “Our traditional advice to limit screen time and restrict content is no longer relevant and often unheard by families.” I agree that for many years that AAP advice had been too focused on content. However, seeing my grandchildren thrive in an environment of what many might consider an extreme screen time restriction has further reinforced my previous observations that the critical issue with screen time is that it replaces health-promoting active alternatives. Even screen time that requires some interaction relegates the child to the role of a sedentary spectator.
Although Dr. Rich is to be commended for suggesting that we look at evidence-based studies as we decide how to counsel parents about screen time, I am always skeptical about the validity of short-term “evidence.” I fear that some of the evidence-based studies are being used to excuse or rationalize an already unhealthy situation. At some point we need to step back and take the longer look. Would you rather see your grandchildren hunched over a screen or couched in front of a television watching other people doing things, or would you prefer that they be physically active doers and creators themselves?
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”