Being screen-free made me miserable as a kid, so I let my child watch TV

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

It was the 1980s. Parents hadn't yet cottoned to the term "screen time" as a code for "they have no control of their kids."

My mother and father kept me screen-free for one simple reason: We lived in a rural river valley in Upstate New York, and there was no choice.

The rabbit ears that most 1980s families used to tune in episodes of "Cheers" and "Knight Rider" would have needed to stretch a few dozen feet above our roof to capture the signal, and the giant white fibreglass satellite dishes parked on some lawns in my town had out-of-this-world prices to match the source of the signals they used to bring information from space.

Even as cable television began to flourish across the nation, our small back road was ignored in favour of streets with dozens of houses and more chances for the corporations to secure lucrative sign-ups.

We couldn't get satellite. We couldn't get cable. We couldn't get TV out of thin air. We were living in a no man's land.

I was screen-time-free before it was cool, and I was a reader. I won the year three read-athon. I worked my way through the children's section of our small-town library by fourth grade and got special permission to use my junior library card to visit the "adult" section.

I loved (love) books.

But I was desperately lonely.

Much has been made of the problems with screen time. Studies abound on the negative effects of spending too much time sitting, eyes glazing over, in front of a television set.


What I've yet to find are studies on day-to-day conversations among the kids living with screens and those without. I was a test case in the 1980s without researchers following my every move, and I was miserable.

I entered school as the kid without TV, and I remained that kid through high school. Eventually, televisions entered our home - a prize my contractor father won for selling a premium amount of product in his industry - but still there was no reception, no satellite, no cable.

My parents bought two VCRs to match each TV, one for the living room and one for each bedroom. We could only see videos - specifically, ones chosen by my parents. We never saw live TV.

I didn't see the space shuttle Challenger explode.

I didn't learn to "Walk This Way."

I didn't know what it meant to "Push It ."

But I did go to school every day in a town with the kids who saw it all happen. They watched MTV announce that video killed the radio star. They knew who shot J.R .

Screen time links us to the puzzle pieces of conversation that connect us to our peers. We can nod along when someone makes reference to a meme we've seen on social media. We strike up debates over the pivotal moments on must-see TV.

The same goes for kids.

When my peers made reference to heartthrobs, to music videos, to inside jokes born of pop culture, I had no idea what they meant.

They sang songs I didn't know and made jokes I couldn't understand. I pretended to know what was going on, only to disappear to the bathroom when I was caught as a pretender.

I didn't know why Jen and Joey were fighting on "Dawson's Creek ." I wouldn't find out until years later, in the weeks after delivering my daughter, when I spent afternoons with her infant body in my lap devouring old episodes of the teen drama.

And while I was learning that Joey had scored an impossible gig in New York City as an editor and Jen was (gulp) dying, I made a promise to the small person in my lap.

I wasn't going to make her that one kid who had no idea that all this was going on. I wasn't going to make her an outsider.

I see the warnings about screen time. The obesity. The lack of sleep. The obsession.

Although I take them into account, I forge forward with a sense of what it's like to be kept in the dark.

My 13-year-old daughter does not have carte blanche to spend all day on her i-whatever - she has chores to do around the house, cats to feed, dogs to let out, dirty laundry to carry from her bedroom to the basement - but she does have a regular TV viewing schedule.

I used to give her a 10-hour-a-week limit to use in any way she pleased. But now that she's a teen, we put no limits on the time she spends watching Netflix or YouTube because she has developed what we deem to be pretty healthy screen habits.

When she's in front of a screen, it's not only time I've forced her to devote to educational endeavours. I want her to goof off, to sing the songs her classmates sing and learn their lingo. I want her to know the modern version of " eat my shorts " and use it in context.

I want her to know what somebody on YouTube has done if it engages her friends in conversation.

We can all agree by now that too much time in front of a screen is bad for kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that too much time in front of a screen keeps kids from sleeping and learning. Kids get addicted to screens. Their vision goes kerflooey.

But if every action has an equal and opposite reaction, I'm the test case.

I'm a kid who didn't have any screen time. And I can tell you that the only thing worse than too much of a good thing is none at all.

The Washington Post