Book Report: The Plug-In Drug.

I think this might be a good time to revisit our decision to keep Zoe TV-free as we are finding ourselves suddenly warming to the idea. (Funny how a crappy first trimester can do that!)

First a little history: we have wrestled with whether to allow Zoe to watch TV since she was about 4 months old. At that time, I noticed that whenever I was nursing her in front of the TV, she would unlatch (causing geysers of milk to drown nearby cities) and stare glassy-eyed at the TV until I did something to block her view. So we decided to keep the TV off when she was awake, though I still watched during many naps and in the evenings. I quickly figured out that some of my less-than-complete bliss at being a stay-at-home mom was related to the way I felt after spending too many hours prostrate before the tube watching "Jon and Kate Plus 8"/"Rock of Love"/"Made"/"What Not to Wear" and whatever the hell came on after because OH GOD I CANNOT SEEM TO TURN IT OFF. When Zoe was an infant, TV kept me company, made me a feel a little less alone and gave structure to my strangely formless days.

It also made me feel pretty crappy. So after initially focusing on keeping the TV off when Zoe was awake, I started to seriously limit my TV intake in general. CG too. If there is something specific we like ("The Office", "The Daily Show", "Entourage", "Weeds"), we TiVo it and if the time comes that we really want to watch it, we can, without commercials, on our own time. Today, this means that we don't watch that much TV, usually an hour or so a couple times a week. Which is quite lovely. (Though lately, with this ever present nausea, I've been watching way too much again. So I'm hereby resolving to go back to the No TV During The Day rule. Her naps can be my naps and I trust I will manage to survive without seeing my 1,000th "A Baby Story".

We don't plan on keeping TV from Zoe forever; after all, we await the blessed time when she can wake up early on a Saturday, take herself into the living room and watch cartoons while CG and I sleep in. But we decided to go with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation and wait till she was at least two and then decide.

She is now two and a half. Now what?

Last spring, after I noticed a tattered billion-year-old copy of "The Plug-In Drug" by Marie Winn at my parenting education class, I went home and ordered myself a copy of the "updated" book. (Updated to include references to VCRs but not DVDs. Winn mentions with TERROR one "new" minivan that now comes with a built-in VCR. OOOOOoooo. Me thinks it's time for her to update again.)

The book is straightforward and decently written. No poetry here, just get-the-point-across prose. (Hmm perhaps that should be my new blog tagline...) However, Winn clearly has an agenda (can you guess what it is from the title?!) and relies on waayyyy too many anecdotes to support her arguments. (I know anecdotes are supposed to be helpful, so many parenting books include them, and honestly, they mostly annoy the F out of me. I prefer statistics and an N of 1 does NOTHING for me, people.)

And just what are her arguments, you ask? (Her points are summarized in bold, my comments follow.)

1.The real issue with TV is not the content (many parents counter any argument against TV with "But it's educational! He's learning Spanish/spelling/math!"). The problem is that time spent watching TV is time NOT spent doing something open-ended, using your child's imagination. TV captures the imagination, it does not stimulate it. This is especially problematic in young childhood as their developing mind should be busy making sense of the world and exploring, at their own pace, based on their own interest. TV is a passive experience that replaces play in which the child is the active leader. Young children so often have things done TO them and rarely get the chance to lead their own lives. Only open ended play does that. TV does not.

I find this argument persuasive. Zoe often plays independently, in her own world, talking to herself and her dollies and her shoes (! Should I be worried about that one?). I wouldn't want to disrupt, limit or impinge on her having that open-ended time. I hear the educational argument all the time from parents who don't understand why we don't show Zoe TV and I'm not terribly persuaded by it because, as Winn points out, EARLY childhood is not about acquiring rote skills through prescription (there's enough time for that later in school) but about acquiring social skills, independent play skills and imagination, all of which can be limited or hampered by TV watching.

2. The slippery slope issue: TV habits often start small (a half hour here, a half hour there), but as the child gets older TV replaces more and more of the open ended exploring that is the cornerstone of childhood development. It becomes more and more of a draw and harder and harder to limit. A daily battle over how much TV is allowed is common in many households.

(I just saved you by not including the 8,000 anecdotes she uses to illustrate this point.) I know myself and TV and fear my own slippery slope tendencies with it. And we still see Zoe completely zone out whenever she does see TV (at restaurants or friends' houses) so it's easy to imagine that it would be a big draw for her. I fear I would resort to it more and more and more. Once that gate is open, I know it would be hard to keep limits.

We are wrestling with this even more, just in the last few days, because somehow we got into the habit of watching some short videos of dance recitals on YouTube. I'm not sure how it started but now Zoe is a bit obsessed and insists on seeing the "Mary had a little lamb dancers!" ALL DAY LONG. We've got to put a stop to it, if only to keep my brain from rotting. I feel like it's just semantics at this point that we're keeping "TV" from her when she's watching videos on the computer. They are short and I'm right there with her but still, it's screen time all the same.

3. It allows us as parents to get a little lazy when faced with a task we need to do and a toddler who wants our attention. It becomes too easy to plunk your child down in front of the TV while you are cooking dinner rather than finding ways to include them in the process or find a parallel play activity that they can do while you work. It may be an easy short term solution that becomes an entrenched habit.

I was first really REALLY was tempted to use TV when Zoe started being clingy RIGHT at dinner-making time. For a month or two, it was IMPOSSIBLE to cook anything without her screaming, whining body attached to my leg/hip/neck. Soon enough, I figured out things that she could do while I cooked and now she mostly plays independently in the kitchen with me while I cook or I involve her in cooking (okay, right NOW, I'm not really "cooking" at all but the warming up of Trader Joe's food and the doing of dishes from the three previous meals so that we have a clear table and some dishes to eat with still has to get done somehow!). I fear that if I had used TV then, I would never have tried to get her back into the kitchen with me. Dinner making time would just be TV time and that would be the end of it.

4. It doesn't allow for the imagination that comes with "boredom". Finding something to do when you are in unstructured time is a skill. As the TV generation ages we find many adults who are unable to do this. These are the people who automatically turn on the TV on vacation, the ones who have it on all weekend long without really watching anything, the ones who spent the whole evening after work endlessly channel surfing to see if "somethings on". Boredom for kids inspires creativity. Those who learn how to deal with boredom and entertain themselves will not be as likely to yell "Mom! I'm booooreeeddd!"when they're older as they will not be counting on external stimulation all the time.

I have friends and family who must always have the TV on and I honestly find it a strange and sad thing. What about silence? What about a little space to hear the voice of your own thoughts? What happens if a child is not given the opportunity to live and play without external stimulation all the time? What if even a little of that external stimulation becomes so treasured that it surpasses all other play in value to the child?

5. Children are different from adults. Adults can use TV to unwind from stressful days, to relax while being effortlessly entertained. Children benefit from other ways of unwinding. TV time, instead of relaxing children, often leaves them crankier than before, which, she argues, is most likely a result of the different kind of consciousness that occurs in young children watching TV. It is akin to post-sleep crankiness where the brain is challenged to come back to wakeful, purposeful alertness.

She goes on to describe TV as addictive (hence the title of the book) for parents and for children. She describes the way parents use TV, as a way to entertain kids when they are sick, to calm them when they are upset, to help them transition to new activities, as akin to drugging them. This is over the top, but I get her point.

The whole idea that TV affects the brain and "consciousness" is interesting and scary but, unfortunately, she uses very little fact and lots of stories about kids "zoning out". She asserts that the visual images presented in such a flattened visual field is really a "sensory assault" to young brains, one that "activates an immediate passive response in many young viewers". She goes on to link the constant shifting of visual frames in most TV programs to ADHD but uses only anecdotal stories and quotes from doctors with no mention of specific research. ARG. Give me STATS!

So, if you're still reading, what do you all do about TV? What do you make of her arguments (or, at least, of my poorly summarized versions of her arguments)?

PS. I should just mention here that I was raised on TV from a young age and can tell you all about every single game show, soap opera, and laugh-track sitcom from the 80's. And I have no brain damage (that I can link to TV, anyway). I'm STILL interested in whether TV is a good, necessary, desirable thing to show to my kid(s!).


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I hear you! This issue is still fairly new for us- Abigail is just 5 1/2 months old- but even still, we've been thinking about it since well before she actually got here. Sadly enough, I have no insight for you- just some camaraderie. As a pretty well-enforced rule, we keep the tv off when Abigail is around, but the slippery slope is very real: my mother-in-law watched Abigail one day last week, and when I got home, I got to hear about all the shows that Abigail "enjoyed" watching. Hmm. Anyway, we continue to be mindful of the issue, but I did soften up and let her stay in the room this week while I watched a few minutes of The Simpsons a couple of days ago. As it happened, she was very interested in batting around a toy and paid no attention to the idiot box. So go figure. Good luck!


My Buddy Mimi said...

Nice post. We let Mimi watch TV, but I usually watch with her, talk to her about what we are watching, etc. Since I have a limited tolerance for most kids shows, that keeps it from getting too out of control. I guess I think the bad part is plopping your kid in front of the TV and walking off to do something else.

brooke said...

Wonderful post. Thanks for highlighting the main points of the book. While I am not a parent yet, I love a good mom blog : )
I do plan on keeping a no TV zone (as well as many other "no" zones that make my husband and mother roll their eyes at me regularly)

I say good for you! Keep Zoe TV free for as long as you can. I know some mothers of young children who swore they weren't going to let their children watch TV and they didn't make it past several months. One of my girlfriends didn't even bother making such claims- she registered for DVDs!

Marie Green said...

Our kids watch tv- my 2 year old hardly ever more than an hour/week, my older kids probably see average 1/2-1 hour daily. We DO get into "seasons" where they are watching more, but we also have many seasons where we are very busy and they watch way less.

My 2 year old only watches "Elmo" (Sesame Street) and Blues Clues, and usually only about 15 minutes and she looses interest. My older kids watch a variety, but are not allowed to watch tv w/ commericals. (A another whole post could be dedicated to the advertising aimed at small children!)

I think in moderation, tv is mostly harmless. Also, my parents sheltered me from a lot of things, and by middle school I was so out of touch with most "pop culture" things that other kids my age loved that I felt like an outsider. TV is here to stay, so I think some allowing it in moderate amounts is ok for kids.

(BTW, my girls DO NOT watch Hannah Montana/High School Musical- what is with early elementary ed kids being "into" high school themed shows and movies?????? THAT is weird.

Moderation. Like everything else. =)

Kate said...

Uh, not sure if my comment before went through. If this is a double post, sorry:

Thanks so much for this post. It's reminded me not to become complacent over this and other parenting decisions - that I need to not default to TV watching, the way I have been doing lately.

Up until a month or so ago we were a DVD only household, and even with that we almost never watched DVDs during the baby's waking hours (not out of discipline as much as practicality). However, now we have a limited amount of cable programming and as the weather gets colder I find myself turning on the TV for comfort (funny you should mention Jon and Kate Plus 8, it's such a guilty pleasure but I just turn it on and zone right out). Today I had it on while I was feeding the baby in his high chair and that meal did not go well. It distracts my focus on him and distracts him from what he's supposed to be doing (in this case eating).

In some ways I'd just like to get rid of the TV altogether. My husband and I differ on this quite a bit: he was raised on TV from an early age and had one in his bedroom growing up. His family ate all their meals in front of the TV. In fact, he pretty much hates to eat without the TV on. By contrast, my family ate at a dining room table, no TV in sight, and the only time a TV ever went into my room was one summer when one of my legs became paralyzed for three weeks. My parents would bring in the small TV for a short while each day out of sheer pity for me missing out on all the summer fun. In my childhood the only route to your own TV, or really any kind of extended TV watching, was PARALYSIS. So that's where I'm coming from.

I feel the temptation of having something that keeps the kids happy for even a short time. One thing I've wondered about, too, is as they get older, if they are not exposed to television the way that it seems everyone in the US is, will they be able to relate to those around them? The common experience is so much more often becoming the one that was shared on TV (or youtube). Even back in the 80s this was the case - I didn't get many of the references other kids made at school. I have not, for a day in my life, been cool, and I think a lot of that goes back to the fact that not only did I not have a common pop culture frame of reference with my peers, I was also totally unaware of the zillions of products out there because I wasn't seeing any of the ads. I don't consider my lack of cool a real problem - all in all I've traded that TV time for a lot of creating and reading and play time that has benefited me personally as well as professionally. And yet, being completely out of touch with what everyone else seems to know is a painful thing for a kid (or an adult for that matter). So obviously I'm conflicted on this.

I do think ads, particularly those aimed at kids, lead only to a sense of discontent and frustration, and no matter how much TV we end up letting our kid(s) watch, it will all be ad-free. Except for product placement of course. Argh.

(Er, sorry for the anecdotes...)

clueless but hopeful mama said...

my buddy mimi- I totally agree that watching with your kids is the best idea for them and their viewing experience but what about us?! If I am to resort to TV, the kind of TV experience I daydream about is NOT the two of us curled up on the couch watching Barney but her watching something- ANYTHING- while I disappear.

marie green- I agree with moderation being the key and I know that when (not if) we do allow TV we WILL be limiting it. And I SO HEAR YOU on the 5 year olds that watch the tween stuff like High School Musical. WTF??

kate- The "wanting your kids to be up on a reasonable level of pop culture" argument makes sense to me. And I do think that having a connection to popular culture and the basics of what's going on out there is important; this is one of the reasons we will introduce TV at some point. However, I was up on ALL the shows and I was totally uncool as a kid/teen. It didn't help me any and couldn't have hurt me any worse than my acne/braces/bad perm/glasses/general social awkwardness did.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Oh and kate? Your anectdotes? I love them, keep 'em coming. Anecdotes in a book that uses them as the only support for arguments that should have research out there to support them? ANNOYING.

melanie said...

I've read The Plug-in Drug a couple times over the years (once years ago and then again when I got pregnant). Luckily my husband and I are on the same page about TV - we had one that had no reception and never got used except for movies. When our daughter came along we just got rid of it. (And now I don't have to dust it - yay!). Of course, our daughter is only 6 months old but I have noticed that she is glued to the TV if it is on anywhere when we are out - especially commercials. We definitely plan to keep her away from TV with only the ocassional "family movie night" (on the computer) until she is old enough to start questioning it and then we will revisit the issue.

I have to agree with Kate though - not watching TV has something of a stigma to it. People seem to bond over talking about TV shows and I haven't been able to particpate in those conversations for years - in fact, when those conversations were struck up when I worked at Starbucks my friends would say "oh don't bother talking to Melanie - she doesn't watch TV." I do enjoy watching older shows on DVD though so I'm not a complete shut-in!

The other thing I tell people is that I KNOW not having a TV around to babysit Moira means more work for me and that it will probably get really frustrating at times but they are small for such a short period of time that I am going to try and be up to the challenge. (I've obviously thought about this a lot, no?)

desperate housewife said...

It's not something I even really considered banning altogether in our house... We're both such huge movie fans than it seemed altogether impractical to try to keep the TV off. We DO get very limited cable, and honestly the only programs the kids ever see are PBS shows. Other than that, they have a wide collection of kids DVD's, which they both seem to enjoy, though they rarely just SIT and watch them; usually they're playing while it's on. I notice Addy only sits on the couch to watch if she's sleepy. So I don't really notice it having a drugging affect on her- if she's excited about something else, she'll always just turn the TV off herself and go do what she wants. But I have seen other kids who get instantly zombie-like while watching TV, so I know what you're talking about.
I don't have an easy answer to the issue of making Tv policies as a family. I would just turn it off if it starts to feel icky and like no one is having fun anymore!
Also, I think it's kind of unrealistic of that author to villify TV as being THE factor behind ADHD. Personally I think it has much more to do with the HUGE change in people's diets in the last century. Some people's diets pretty much consist of processed, preserved foods. You can't tell me all those chemicals and food dyes don't start to take a toll.

desperate housewife said...

Also, (and sorry for the super long comment trail here) I notice personally that the kids who get really glued to and mesmerized by TV are the ones who AREN'T around it much at all. It becomes a novelty. It's kind of like sweets. If kids are allowed to try things when they want them and sugar isn't viewed as this great evil in their homes, they tend (in my opinion) to be a lot less obsessed with eating candy! Any time something is taboo, it becomes all the more fascinating. Just a thought.

Blog Designed by: NW Designs