The Electronic Babysitter: A Trojan Horse?

A mere two thousand years ago, Virgil wrote the Aeneid. Many of its concepts have meaning for us thousands of years later, but my focus today is the cautionary tale of the Trojan Horse. Briefly, the Greeks had been unsuccessfully striving to take the city of Troy for 10 long years. They devised a trick where they would offer the Trojans what seemed like an impressive gift—a huge wooden horse—after which they would all pile into their boats and sail away, apparently giving up on the siege.

The Trojans took the bait, brought the giant horse within their city walls, and subsequently lost the war. Under cover of darkness, a number of elite Greek warriors emerged from the belly of the horse, opened Troy’s gates, and allowed their fellow warriors inside to plunder Troy. Perhaps you’ll recognize the quote, “Trojans, don’t trust this horse. Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks, even those bearing gifts.”

The takeaway here is that even something that seems to be a gift should be approached with caution and good judgment.

I recently blogged about Screen Time Vs. Creativity: Finding the Balance for Growing Children and discussed the possible effects of screen time on developing brains. In the blog, I mentioned that since many of these types of electronic stimuli are recent additions to the human family, the research and observations on their effects are only beginning to trickle in. Since then, more concerns have been raised by health officials on the detrimental effects of too much screen time on developing minds. Currently, the average amount of time spent gazing at screens is greater than 7 hours per day! I don’t know about you, but I find that number positively staggering. The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation study, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18-Year-Olds,” (January 2010) disclosed the following:

Children ages 8–18 spend the following amount of time in front of the screen each day:

  • Approximately 7.5 hours using entertainment media
  • Approximately 4.5 hours watching TV
  • Approximately 1.5 hours on the computer
  • Over an hour playing video games

This is in stark contrast to the average 25 minutes per day that children spend reading books.

On average, children ages 8-18 spend nearly 15 hours each day staring at a screen.

This got me thinking about my own youth and wondering how different my life would have been if I had access to the electronic devices of today. The more I think about it, the more grateful I am that I didn’t have such modern devices. Such devices could have easily taken over my life, and not for the better.

Yes, we had a television, but we only had 4 stations and limited programming so we didn’t spend a lot of time watching it. When we did view tv shows, it was usually as a family. I especially remember Sunday evenings watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom followed by The Wonderful World of Disney. Beyond that, there was not much to keep me glued to the TV. On those rare Saturday afternoons when I was stuck inside, I could only stand so much of The Lawrence Welk Show and dare I say it…Hee Haw. Argh!!! And how many of you remember turning on the TV at 4 a.m. only to be greeted by a test pattern? There was literally no programming after midnight when people were supposed to be sleeping.

Going back yet another generation, I remember my dad describing how as a child, his family would sit around a large box with a speaker (I think they called this piece of antiquity a radio) and would stare transfixed at it as stories would be dramatically narrated—often with sound effects too.

However, most of my early years were spent outside with friends, playing games and using my imagination. Those are the best memories of all. I shudder to think what benefits I would have lost without that time; social skill development, meaningful friendships, robust physical activity, development of hand/eye coordination, development of my creativity and imagination, learning problem-solving skills, exploration and discovery of my world, and development of a meaningful appreciation for its wonders.

When it comes to electronic devices, I’m not suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bath water, but rather that we find a place of balance and this is especially important for the very young.

Here are some points to ponder:

  • Consider minimizing your own screen time when the kids are around, especially during meals, playtime, or shared activities. Instead, consider prioritizing conversation, teaching moments (brushing teeth, tying shoes, washing hands, polite interaction, to name a few), and consistent daily routines.
  • Be present and engaged when screens are on, and, whenever possible, co-view with your child.
  • Pay attention to messages about gender, body image, violence, diversity, and social issues when choosing content.
  • Focus on shared reading and playtime activities that encourage your child’s imagination, and offer words of praise and support for any creative moments, activities, or projects your child generates.
  • Select quality content purposefully, i.e., let’s watch/play this now, for this reason.
  • Medline suggests zero screen time for children under 2 years of age and limiting screen time to 1 to 2 hours daily for children over 2 years of age.
  • Don’t use screen time as a reward or a punishment

As always, I’d love to hear your input. What activities did you enjoy as a child? How much of a role did the television play?


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