I admit it. I have a soft spot in my heart for television. Hours of childhood make-believe and an entire life’s work were inspired by TV and movies. I become a professional ventriloquist because of television—believe me, I don’t come from a family of people who talk without moving their lips. And I spent untold joyful hours playing about characters I encountered on the screen—Flash Gordon and Peter Pan. As an adult, I had the opportunity to bring my puppets to Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and I shared Fred Rogers’ belief in the potential, and the obligation, of screen media to benefit children.
So I can’t escape the irony that I now direct The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an organization in the forefront of a movement to limit commercialism—and the screen time it supports—in the lives of children. As I wrote in my book, The Case for Make Believe, I struggled long and hard to understand why I am so troubled by children’s relationship to screen media today when my own childhood experience was so positive. But there are significant differences between my experience of screens and that of children today—namely unlimited access and out-of-control commercialism.
The Flash Gordon series aired maybe once a year. I saw Peter Pan in a movie theater once when I was 6 and didn’t see it again until I was 19. If I wanted to re-experience the profoundly deep and glorious feelings these characters and the worlds they inhabit evoked in me, I had to play about them. And since they entered my life on a screen only rarely, I had the time, space, and silence to embroider and embellish as I liked—to combine the realms of Neverland and the planet Mongo, home of the evil Ming the Merciless, and to insert myself gloriously in the middle of the action.
Children today don’t have that opportunity. It’s hard to come by time, space, and silence for their own creations. Popular media characters impinge on daily life, cavorting on screens everywhere—at home, in theaters, in the back seats of cars, on airplanes, on cell phones, in doctor’s offices, on MP3 players, and even on grocery shelves. Cartoon icons and superheroes beckon constantly from food, clothing, toys and accessories. Explaining that screen media programming is now targeted at children in the interstitial moments of their lives—when they’re between places—an executive at Nickelodeon quipped, “Nickelodeon is everywhere kids are.”
Preschool children spend, on average, a staggering 32 hours a week in front of a screen outside of school. And too many are adding to that time in school as well. According to a 2009 study in Pediatrics, 36% of center-based child-care programs include television time, for an average of 1.2 hours a day, and a troubling 70% of home-based child-care programs include television time for an average of 3.4 hours per day. To their detriment, and society’s, the default activity for children around the world is to be in front of a screen. In addition to the erosion of children’s creative play, hours spent with screens are linked to childhood obesity, poor school performance and other major problems.
It’s daunting to think about the money and power driving the push for a childhood characterized by all-screens-all-the-time. But here’s what’s hopeful: That there’s a need for balance may be getting some traction. The TV blaring in the pediatrics department of my HMO has been replaced by a large aquarium. The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has joined The American Academy of Pediatrics in recommending no screen time for children under 2 and limited time for older kids. 70 leading early childhood educators, pediatricians, researchers and child advocates joined CCFC in urging the National Association for the Education of Young Children to take a leading role in the growing effort to reduce the amount of time children spend with screens. The organization is revising its 1996 position statement on children and technology.
I still believe in the potential of quality, commercial-free screen media to benefit children—at least children over 3. But regardless of content, the balance in children’s lives between screen time and time for anything else has gone spectacularly awry. It’s urgent that we set it right.