The Full Spectrum: When Did TV Become The Enemy?

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The Full Spectrum focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising a child who ranks on the autism spectrum.

Last weekend my sister-in-law and her two kids flew in from Montreal and stayed with us in Toronto for four days. My boys were excited to see their out-of-town cousins and we had tons of action-packed activities planned in the city, coupled with lots of down time up north at the cottage. It seemed like the perfect recipe for some quality family time.

Everyone was getting along and having a great time together until my sister-in-law turned to me and told me she thought that our family needed one full day a week without screen time. I was mortified.

My sister-in-law is an amazing woman and she happens to be a professional therapist, as well, and so I’ll often share my family challenges with her and then happily listen to her advice and analysis. And yet I was completely taken aback by her screen-time comment.

Screen time is the dirty secret of our educated and overly involved parenting generation. Many of us grew up with unlimited television time (no child of the 70s was ever told to turn off the TV – it was too new and exciting for everyone). In my house growing up, it was cartoons in the morning, Flintstones over lunch and then back-to-back episodes of The Cosby Show and The Young and the Restless après school. After dinner was homework (maybe) and then nights filled with Fantasy Island, Dallas and other evening “soaps.” Despite the non-stop screen time, I turned out okay (kind of).

By the time I had my first child in 2003, society’s view of television had changed and I was well indoctrinated in the idea that TV was bad. I vowed that I was not going to be one of those parents that had their kids watching seven hours of TV a day (apparently that’s the average for kids seven and up). Even two hours a day sounded like too much to me. Little did I know.

To a sleep-deprived, time-challenged new mom, TV was a great solution to the early-morning wake-ups and rattle-shaking boredom. While I was dozing back to sleep most mornings, one show easily turned into three. I guess this really set my kids’ TV habit in motion.

Like lots of children with Aspergers and ADHD, TV and video games – not to mention computers, iPods, iPads and the like – are something my own son, S., uses as a way to calm himself and decompress from a world that can be overwhelming. The shows and games are more predictable than the real world, and they provide entertainment without the social challenges of people and their ever-changing dynamics. While I acknowledge that S. needs this release, I am still horrified by his preference for screen time over almost anything else in the world.

So when my sister-in-law suggested a screen-free day a week, I was utterly embarrassed. It didn’t help that a new study had come across the news wire taking aim at shows like SpongeBob SquarePants (a favorite in my home – yikes!) for the negative effect they have on young kids’ brains. She was validating my already guilty conscience that my kids were too dependent on technology. We’ve created a real hierarchy in our technologically savvy world and, oddly enough, technology is at the bottom of it. Old-school activities like playing outside, riding bikes, nature walks and gardening are considered to be the “good” activities.  On the other hand, the things that most of us parents allow for hours each day, like iPhones and computers, are considered the enemy of children everywhere. S. is not obese. He rides his bike to school most days and plays in the park daily. And yet I still can’t help but cringe over screen time.

Like any self-respecting parent of this generation, I defended my kids and myself vehemently to my sister-in-law, while I secretly plotted how I would execute a screen-free day after she left. Of course, I’ll take to the Internet to figure out a plan of action.

(Photo: wavebreakmedia ltd/Shutterstock)