A year ago, Santa brought us a computer. It is big and flashy, and has changed our lives. Before the arrival of this Media Dream, we had lived without television, videogames and the internet. We watched occasional DVDs on Sean’s laptop but really, the kids’ lived were untouched by media, apart from the odd visit to Grandma’s and friends’ houses. Weeks would go by. Months! Without any media image of violence, advertising or cartoon sassiness.
My original reasons for this lockdown were pretty simple: Our first son, Chas, is a super-energized child. As a baby he never slept for long, and if forced to keep still in a car or set in front of a TV show, he would spend the rest of the day climbing the walls, loudly. I did a little research: “Hyperactive children and TV not good” said some website or other. “TV not recommended for children” said another. It was good enough for me. We moved house and simply left the TV behind. It was easy. Later on, it was clear that the boys read more, play more board games and have better communication skills, than the average TV-watching family. So continuing to be a “No TV” household is a no-brainer.
Three babies later, I was advising other Moms: Child overweight? ADD? Rude? Not reading? Struggling in school? Get rid of the TV. Lose the Gameboy. Pack the Nintendo away on a high, high shelf. Some families have taken these steps, and with older kids it isn’t so easy. There is a period of utter boredom while the child’s brain learns not to be handed entertainment. They lie about moaning “There’s nothing to DO!” Until one day, out of desperation, they pick up a book or learn a skill or start a conversation and find that they can be with themselves and it’s all right!
I am happy with keeping TV out of the house, and I realize how easy I have it: We have warm weather year-round, and five acres of really cool back yard to play in. The boys are also close in age, and we often have cousins and friends to stay, sometimes for months at a time. It’s boy heaven here. I can understand that living in an apartment, watching the sleet fall outside, is not quite the same! I can totally understand the popularity of the Wii.
So what about us, and our gorgeous computer, one year later?
Well, Sam gets the addict's gleam in his eye when he looks at it. If Sam is allowed unlimited computer game time, he will just sit there, not hungry, not thirsty, for hours and hours. I have experimented with just leaving him be and it’s weird! He has to tear himself away from the screen when his time is up. The other boys like to play on the computer, but will happily be distracted with anything else that’s going on. And play is what it is. Lego Star Wars, Rally racing games, Club Penguin. I have never been into “Educational Games” and haven’t found any proof at all that they can make a child smarter. My kids are plenty smart anyway. I worry about the violent content in the Lego games, where you get points for blasting anyone and anything to smithereens. It's cute violence, purchased because of the "E" content rating on the package, and I am surprised at the amount of killing that seems to happen in a game marketed to 6-year-olds.
The kids use the internet for homework, and they have their own website. We watch DVDs on the nice big screen. They look stuff up on YouTube and have learned how to use the word “Fuck” correctly in a humorous setting. (Extremely annoying. Does this come under "Educational"?) Google answers our many questions in a wonderful way, complete with great images and scientific explanations. We have downloaded music from Limewire and found guitar and violin lessons and demonstrations. We have excited phone calls, “You’re on Club Penguin? Where ARE you?” We often have a group of kids in the kitchen, surrounding the computer, cheering each other on or laughing hysterically.
For me, it’s been the coolest thing ever. There’s the babysitting function: Put on a DVD or a cool game and four out of five kids will park themselves quietly in front of the screen for half an hour or more of mess-free, quiet entertainment. But the best part for me is the grownup time. I can have grownup conversations. Read about friends’ lives and commiserate with them. Write my heart out. Be connected to a world that isn’t populated solely with chickens and children. Living here is hard for me. It’s beautiful, but very, very lonely. The internet keeps me company. If I am using the computer during the day, I find it easy to ignore the kids and that's not good.
So it's a mixed report here for the computer and internet. The kids' game time is limited, half an hour per child or an hour if you're playing together. NO computer time during school days, unless specifically needed for homework. On-line time is hovered over by me, and I realise there's plenty of negative crap out there that's readily available to kids online. I let them watch the dumb "funny" stuff, even if I think it's in bad taste, because I know it's limited and I can try to counteract it with the "Good Stuff". Our computer is in the kitchen, the busiest and largest room in the house, so there's supervision. The DVDs we have watched together have been great. I still read to the kids, and we listen to audiobooks in the car. They love board games and play instruments still, and read, but not as much as they used to.
Sam says, “It’s been great! The games, our website, the internet where you can find out anything.” So what’s been bad, Sam? Anything? “Nada.”
Max says, “Miniclip. (a games website, featuring Club Penguin) Watching movies.” Anything bad? “Fighting over who’s turn it is.”
Issa says, “Internet! This computer works properly. My favorite thing is Club Penguin and you can look up things like an encyclopedia.”
Chas says, "Our website." Chas is really outdoorsy and doesn't understand the appeal of video games. He will play them when they are new, but soon loses interest. He gets mad when everyone's playing with the computer instead of with him!
The media is a powerful tool, and a good one. My kids would probably not have seen (briefly)Skeleton Sex this year if not for the internet, but they would have missed out on an awful lot too. Darth Vader in the Star Wars Cantina on YouTube? He says "Fuck", but geez, it's hilarious!