One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to ditch our television set and never replace it.
This happened over three years ago, a few months after “the big switch,.” For those of you who missed it, a few years ago, free television programming switched from analog to digital and viewers were forced to either subscribe to cable, purchase a new, digital television or purchase a convertor box.
Our son was a a few months old at the time and we lived in a loft apartment. This meant that, at bedtime, we either kept quiet or risked waking the boy. When it came to television, it was out of the question. It just wasn’t worth it. And, during our son’s waking hours, we simply didn’t want him exposed at such a young age to the weird stuff that flashed on the screen.
Our television set was older than dirt, only had one working speaker, and could barely pick up a signal. I hadn’t had a television myself (or a personal computer) for almost all of my post-high school years, so I had a lukewarm relationship with the thing. John and I mostly used it for movies, anyway. We bought our laptop around the same time so, when we did watch any sort of entertainment, we watched streaming tv shows or youtube clips of movies huddled on our bed in front of the computer, sharing a set of earbuds.
Needless to say, we were fair-weather tv-watchers. So, when “the big switch” happened and regular tv sets went black, we tossed the tv and never looked back.
When I tell people that “we don’t watch tv,” it illicits a bunch of different reactions. Some assume we’ve taken some high-and-mighty anti-culture position and judge tv-watching as a sin. Some assume it means we entertain our children with puppet shows and charades, instead. Some assume that we, like them, just mean that we don’t watch it often.
So, let me explain what being a TV-free family means to us.
Why are we choosing to be tv-free?
1. Television programming is, in general, a total waste of time. There are about a million more important/creative/world-changing things I can (and should) do with my down-time.
2. Most television shows and movies are full of crap. I’m no prude and I am not, as a rule, offended by crude language. But, turn off the popular media stream in your mind for a few months and then re-introduce it. You will be amazing by the loads of disgusting crap you never noticed yourself ingesting before. Everything from the language and gratuitous sex to the general philosophical lessons of popular culture and the hyper-commercialization of the omnipresent marking. The more you take it in, the more desensitized you become and the more “normal” you think it all to be. Wake up and look at what you’re actually consuming.
3. My children should entertain themselves. As tempting as it is to sit my kids in front of some form of hands-off entertainment (computer, tv, iPhone, etc.), it is not profitable for them, developmentally. Creative, child-led (or parent-led) play is important for both artistic and academic reasons. Plopping a kid in front of a screen that requires no real interaction teaches children to be consumers of entertainment rather than creators–consumers of culture rather than culture-makers. I’m not exaggerating. Look 15 years down the road at the lifestyles of tv-lite kids compared to their screen-addicted peers. They are more socially adept (at least with the real world, if not their peers), are less likely to develop destructive habits, tend to be more physically active, and have more academic and career success ahead of them.
4. It is not “harmless.” Nothing is devoid of influence and when children are most impressionable and easily-influenced, we should never assume that the obnoxious whining cartoon character on the television screen isn’t making its way into their subconscious. It all makes its way in, my friends.
5. The branding of children’s products is enough to make me stay away. Everything–from fishing poles to diapers to Memory games to gym shoes–is branded with lame cartoon characters. I will not allow my children to be lured by this manipulative marketing and I refuse to argue with my child over buying that cereal or that juice box because it has their favorite character on it. If it’s as simply as only allowing my child moderate access to the branded characters themselves, I will spare myself a million headaches.
So, how does being “tv-free” actually play out in our family? (This it to prove that we are not insane, culturally isolated, or all-around tv-haters.)
– We do not have a physical television set. But we do have a laptop computer and both my husband and I have iPhones.
– Our laptop does have a DVD-player, but it has been broken for about a year and we have not had it fixed.
– We do not subscribe to any paid online television or movie service. If we want to watch a tv show or movie, we must either watch it streaming for free on a site like Hulu, or must download it from iTunes.
– Our son knows how to use an iPhone, but does not have access to either our computer or our phones on any average day.
– I have a few select television shows downloaded from iTunes on our computer, but my son is only allowed to watch them on special occasions. This translates to about once or twice a month. About once a week, I allow him 20-30 minutes with my phone to watch clips on YouTube–mostly vintage Mickey Mouse cartoons. At our home, he has seen about 6 full-length movies in his lifetime. (He has never seen Cars, Toy Story, or the majority of children’s movies made in the last 10 years.) He does not usually have access to either the computer or my phone while his sister is around. This is very (intentionally) limiting.
– My daughter is 18 months old and is not allowed any “screen time.”
– When visiting friends and relatives, we don’t encourage screen time, but we aren’t stingy about allowing our children to watch shows. If I though something was actually objectionable, I would politely ask to change the show. But, I would rather not cause a fuss. I mean, we might be idealists but we’re not jerks.
– My husband and I have a few tv shows we watch online each week, totaling maybe 2 hours a week. I have another show or two that I catch online sometimes during naptime, maybe once or twice a week.
– With my phone, I can get any information I need about popular culture and/or a world news feed at the touch of a button. Television, for me then, is simply superfluous since I don’t need it for entertainment.
– Without access to normal television programming or a DVD player, our kids don’t ever have un-attended screen time. Chances are, unless I’m in bed vomiting or experiencing something similarly debilitating, you will never hear me say, “Here, son, play with my phone while I do this other thing in the other room.” Any show watched, movie seen, or iPhone game played is chosen and approved my me or John. And it is always used as entertainment–not time-filler while I do other things. When my kids are older, they will likely have more freedom to choose what media they consume and have access to it more often. But, for now, we call the shots.
– The curse of a smartphone is that it never leaves my side and it could quickly become just as much a distraction from parenting as a television set would be. For this reason, I try to avoid spending too much time on my phone while around my children and try to limit my serious phone use to naptime, bedtime, and odd “the kids are playing so nicely together they don’t even notice I’m here!” times. These times don’t come often and I am, admittedly, not awesome at living up to my own expectations much of the time.
We know dozens of other tv-free or (what I’d call) tv-lite families and they all do it for different reasons. And it looks different in every home. Some families have the tv set tucked-away in a closet for special times. Some families have tv and movies, but enforce strict time restraints for older children who deserve a little more freedom. I would never give someone a hard time for making a different decision for their family, especially if we can at least agree that our time is usually best spent doing something else.
I know that parenting is hard and–believe me–I completely understand why someone would want to be able to send their kids to the living room to watch cartoon early on a Saturday morning. There are times when I am really tired or it’s really early or I really want to take a shower or I really need to wash the dishes and I (literally) say to myself, “Gosh, I wish we had a tv.” And, this sometimes means that I have less time alone to myself and less time to do things other than entertain, teach, and play with my kids. Which means, by necessity, less time to clean “in peace” and fewer creative pet projects around the house. But, in the end, it’s worth it to me. And, no, I don’t think we’ll be getting another tv someday. And I’m pretty resolute to not apologize for the decision we’ve made for the benefit of our family. In fact, I think it’s a decision we should be proud of–and it’s a decision I would encourage YOU to make.
Also, on a personal note, it should be said that I do enjoy some contemporary television programming. (Heck, I almost joined a support group when Lost ended a few years back.) And I really enjoy movies. BUT. I really don’t miss watching them. And, if I really wanted to, I could find a way to access them. In fact, I have a few shows waiting in my Hulu queue as I type this.
And, that’s how I prefer to consume entertainment–in small quantities, when the time is right, and only the shows I actually enjoy and find valuable. And, hopefully, that will be the lesson I teach my children: TV is not “bad,” but it’s like junk food. Consumed in small quantities, alongside a steady diet of nutritious, creative play, it won’t kill you. But it’s not going to make you any healthier than you’d be without it.