The Great Screen-Time Tug-of-War

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympi...

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The screentime tug-of-war is, I’m sure, a very very common sport in households today. Technology offers us ever more brilliant and enthralling ways to entertain and educate ourselves, and the desire for knowledge is a good thing, right? And yet, and yet, many parents harbour great anxiety about the slippery slope of screen time.*

Steve Almond has written a great piece on this for the New York Times: My Kids Are Obsessed With Technology, And It’s All My Fault. More

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Why Must Grownups Take Over Children’s Stories?

Adulthood is the ever-shrinking period between childhood and old age. It is
the apparent aim of modern industrial societies to reduce this period to a
minimum.  – Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (1920-2012)

There is a trend of epic proportions out there – more like a tsunami, really – in which every square inch of children’s culture (books, shows, characters, merchandise) is being invaded by adult consumers… resulting in the products being warped and twisted to serve this new demographic.

How did this come about? Is it because grownups just won’t grow up? Is it a sign of total freedom that adults are able to remain child-like their entire lives, or a sign of arrested development?

A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to
be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that
there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks
humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in
this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and
charity.    -Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat and writer (1884-1962)

At the same time “age creep” is noted in the young (ie. kids always want to consume media that is aimed at kids older than themselves), there is a definite “age creep” going in the opposite direction. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem – there’s nothing wrong with adults reading kids books for entertainment – except for the fact that the content creators respond by altering their content to pursue this mature audience, thus rendering the material less fit for the young, the intended audience in the first place.

I’ve often heard the advice that the best children’s stories should also entertain their parents. Now if by that you mean that the story should be crafted well enough to stand up to the scrutiny of a grownup, fine. However too often it’s used as a rather lame excuse to cram every children’s movie full of cultural in-jokes, sly sexual innuendo and ramped up thrills and violence, just to keep the parents fully entertained. Who are you trying to entertain here, and at whose expense?

It’s natural that people retain a fondness for the characters and stories of their youth. But just because there are a lot of grown men out there who have always been Spiderman fans, that doesn’t mean that Spiderman movies should now be made only for adult audiences – too violent, dark and frightening by far for the 6- or 7-year-olds of today.

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The 6 and 7 year olds of yesteryear had mild Spiderman comic books and that abysmal Saturday morning cartoon (when a 7-year-old notices that backgrounds are endlessly recycled you know you are cutting too many corners). Today’s 6- and 7-year-olds have had all their superheroes snatched out of their grasp – unless they can grit their teeth and sit through the hair-raising, gruesome, cynical and sexed up superhero movies of today.

Even the mildest preschool fare is being co-opted by adults with, apparently, way too much time on their hands. Witness the phenomena of “bronies”, or grownups (mostly male) who are rabid fans of the My Little Pony franchise. Sounds like a satirical story from the Onion, but it is absolutely true.

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I just ran into another enclave of adult fans of kid-culture when I was searching for images of the Disney princesses. I was interested in body image, and how the designs of the princesses have changed over the years (bust-waist-hip proportions shifting from modest Snow White to buxom Ariel). In the process I came across the Wikia site for Disney Princesses and scrolled in disbelief through the text and subsequent discussion. Included are discussions on the rules for becoming an official Disney Princess – should Mulan and Pocahontas really be included? Isn’t Belle technically more of a queen than a princess? What are the ages of each princess? Does Mulan’s new dress totally not suit her? What do you think of the Princesses’ new sparkly dresses? Which facial characteristics does each princess inherit from their mothers vs. fathers? When will Merida be included in the official lineup? And more importantly, what will she be wearing??!!

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What kind of world do we live in when news that Anna and Elsa (from an as-yet-unreleased movie) will soon ‘become’ Disney Princesses elicits the following comment from someone older than, say, 8 years old:

OMG !!!!!! SO AWESOME THANKS!!! NOW IM EXCITED TO DEATH!!!

There is a lot of talk these days about how huge the market for children’s products is. This is usually seen as proof that kids today are catered to like little emperors, and have enormous spending power. It’s true that kids acquire more ‘stuff’ than they did in past generations – don’t we all? – but I think the sales figures are skewed by the amount of ostensibly child-oriented merchandise actually being aimed at teens and young adults.

Hello Kitty anyone? What looks like a franchise for 3-year-old girls is actually churning out products like cell phone covers, makeup cases, computer/iPhone/iPad accessories, car accessories, etc for kitsch-savvy teens and adults. So postmodern!

And while grown women are squealing over their new Hello Kitty toaster or bronies are debating the colours of their My Little Pony action figures, the superhero franchises are becoming ever more disturbing and violent.

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Why the constant push to be “edgier”? Why is the roll-out of a “darker” Batman a development to be cheered? Because that’s what grownups want to see. And grownups don’t seem to have much interest in letting kids keep their childhood heroes to themselves.

Role Models for Boys

It sometimes feels like there are a lot – almost too many – male role models out there in the media, but we should be thinking about exactly what they are teaching children.

Here’s a fantastic TED talk by Colin Stokes, “How Movies Teach Manhood”.

There has been an awful lot of effort over the last few years to present young girls with empowering role models that we haven’t spent enough time really analyzing what baggage is being toted by all those male role models we’ve been trying to balance against. Colin is right, they are usually renegades, fighting (always fighting) all alone against the odds, etc. His comparison of The Wizard of Oz with Star Wars is spot on in its implications of the changing face of movies. (It’s also another argument for watching old movies instead of newer ones, in my opinion!)

After my post a few days ago Positive Role Models for Girls I wanted to follow up with some info about boys, and that TED talk really put everything into a nutshell for me.

Here are a couple of great posts from Commonsense Media on the same topic –

Boy Games With Positive Role Models

And in case we forget that boys are just as inundated with media messages about body image as girls are –

Boys and Body Image Tips

Death in Children’s Books

Here’s a great essay from the Random House website Hazlitt – Life and Death in Children’s Books by Jowita Bydlowska. I like her point “what’s better than books to ruin a child’s innocence?”

I’m also more than a little smitten with the 18th century children’s book that would make your hair stand on end – Der Struwwelpeter. It’s particularly fascinating because children are much less horrified by it than their parents. (Generally. It’s still not for everyone, I hasten to add.)

Der Struwwelpeter: Die gar traurige Geschichte...

Der Struwwelpeter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Martin Scorsese on Visual Literacy

Here’s a great 2006 interview with the director, in which he makes the case for teaching young people visual literacy by watching and making movies. (courtesy of Edutopia)

With the increasing dominance of media imagery in our daily landscape, it’s important that our children learn how messages are put together, how their eyes are being directed, how their emotions are being played, and maybe even how to craft images themselves. After all, the rise of digital media has made image collection and manipulation available and affordable for everyone. The next generations are increasingly going to be confronted, pummelled, swayed and played by the media-makers, and basic visual literacy will help them negotiate this new landscape.

The Problem With the News

tv

It’s been a bad week in the news. There’s never really a good week in the news, because the main function of the news is to tell you all the bad stuff, but this week was particularly awful. As adults, we can put these stories into some kind of perspective. Usually. Not always successfully, on a week like this one. Because it’s really hard to shake off the sense that threat is everywhere and disaster waits around every corner.

If it’s hard for us, think how much harder it is for children to process disturbing news stories. Not just the stories, but the relentless images that accompany them – distraught people, photos of the victims, disaster zones, war zones, fires, crumbling buildings, the wounded, the dead.

I stopped watching television news long ago, partly because I don’t have time for it but also because the reporting was becoming too sensational and, frankly, too stupid. The radio has provided me with ample information of current events, and in a much less disturbing manner.

Until this week. Whenever my daughter was around I found myself lunging across the room to click off the radio whenever a newscast began… every hour on the hour. The way the story was being handled just made me sick, so I wasn’t sorry to give up on my radio news entirely. (What put me over the top was a snippet I heard before shutting it off, in which a reporter was asking someone if any of the child victims suffered.)

I’ve come across a couple of helpful links here for parents who want to reassure their kids about recent events – some advice on how to console your children and make them feel secure and safe.

Fred Rogers on Tragic Events in the News

PBS: Talking With Kids About News

Commonsense Media: Explaining the News to Our Kids

As for us, we’ve been on a media fast for this week of tragedy. When I shield my daughter from newscasts, am I preventing her from learning about the world? Only if you think the nightly news is an accurate and balanced portrayal of that world. Until our broadcasters show a little more taste and restraint when reporting on the tragedies of the day, I am glad to just leave the radio off.

In a previous post I wrote about what scares children of different ages, and touched upon the effect of news reports – What Scares Your Child.

Okay, this sounds like a real nightmare…

Before a screening of “Puss in Boots” in the UK, the trailers for two horror films were shown by accident. (from the Huffington Post)

Another reason to save the big movie theatre experience until they’re older! (Other reasons include cost, loudness and tiny bladders.)

The Guardian: “Parental Supervision Not Required…”

This is worth a read – “Parental Supervision Not Required: The Freedom of Classic Children’s Fiction” by Sarah Hall in The Guardian.

Not without interest, though a bit obvious – “the heroes of classic children’s fiction enjoyed far less restricted lifestyles than kids do today. Is that why their stories still appeal?” Um, yes?

One wonders about future classic novels set in our time, in which young heroes and heroines must manage to have adventures within the confines of their own living rooms…

Strangely enough, the comments on this article are thoughtful and interesting themselves. (Now that is rare!) Apart from (presumably) elderly rants about today’s lazy parents plunking their kids in front of tv sets and computers, there are some very good points made. Namely:

1. re. Swallows and Amazons-style adventuring – kids never had that much freedom! These books were regarded as fantastical even when they were written.

2. the main reason that children are prevented from walking about unsupervised is not because of parents crazily paranoid about abduction, but because of the danger from motor vehicles – witness the sheer number of vehicles on the roads and the lack of skill and care of the drivers, not to mention road rage, cell phone use, etc. And no longer are there any really quiet streets. Even in my fairly child-friendly neighbourhood cars regularly roll through four-way stops and ignore the school crosswalks.

Are Your Kids Really Ready for Scary Movies?

Commonsense Media has posted some advice for parents about scary movies.

What Scares Your Child?


Now, before I even get started, before any of you jump on me for being overly protective and censorious, I’m not talking about little scares here. I’m talking about the kind of fright that can cause sleepless nights or change behavior patterns. And these serious kinds of scares are more common than you’d think. As Joanne Cantor writes in “Mommy, I’m Scared”: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We can Do to Protect Them:

“If your child has a severe fright reaction, you are certainly not alone. Your child is not odd, unstable, or otherwise unbalanced, and there are good reasons why the reaction occurred. Sharing your experience with others will no doubt be therapeutic for you, and it’s important to warn other parents about potential effects on their children.” ¹ More

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.