My friend – who is in her seventies – came across a music box as she searched for things in her house to entertain our children. My friend thought it was the quality of the music that made her sad. Gentle music: played by metal pins plucking a comb as you turn the handle. You almost need to hold your breath while it plays; so quiet and slow that even a happy tune can make you sad. But I think the melancholy runs deeper than that. Music boxes evoke nostalgia for a world many of us never knew – a world where something so quiet and slow could hold a child’s attention.
Why would kids play with a music box when they can watch TV? According to an Ofcom report from November 2017, during an average week British children aged 3-4 spend fifteen hours watching TV, nearly 6 hours gaming and 8 hours on the internet, (Fig. 1, p. 26). The report underlines that these amounts might overlap: if children spend some time watching TV on the internet, for instance. It also points out that the figures rely on children and parents remembering their habits accurately – so in truth they probably spend more time than this. But, just going by these figures, we can say that the average British three year old is about six hours short of a full working week – if it’s their job to stare at a screen.
It’s hard to find statistics for younger children, but you just need to read Mumsnet, or ask anyone with a small child, to know that people worry about their babies and toddlers being drawn to screens and don’t necessarily know how much to limit screen-time. Health warnings often focus on children under three, when the brain develops at an incredible rate. Professor Dimitri A Christakis, from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the University of Washington, is a leading campaigner for limitation. You can read about his research online, or watch a Ted Talk by him. One of his central ideas is the ‘over-stimulation hypothesis’. Christakis says, ‘…prolonged exposure to rapid image change during this critical period of brain development would precondition the mind to expect high levels of input and that would lead to inattention in later life.’ (Ted Talk, Dec 2011). Christakis warns that TV before the age of three could lead to attention problems at school. Of course the brain needs to develop normally if your child is going to do well at school.
And could this interference with brain development take something away from a person less obvious, less measurable, than academic achievement? Watching screens might dull our experience of the world. A different friend of mine said to me that when her TV is off ‘it’s like the room has been switched off’. A twelve-year-old I once taught found out I didn’t have a TV, and exclaimed ‘but what does all your furniture point at?’ The TV is what little children watch the most: it’s right there in the centre of the room, big, bright and easy to use. TV, since it’s invention, has increasingly dominated childhood. So children become conditioned to expect ‘high levels of input’. In other words, they need the flashing screen and the quick changes, the sound effects – the action. But the world doesn’t go at that pace. If you’re waiting for action, you won’t notice ants, clouds, the sound of the wind, your own tummy rumbling, birds – you can make your own list.
Maybe worse, if all the adults are watching TV – or on their phones – children miss out on the adult world. Doris Lessing observed the death of an adult culture when she lived with Italian immigrants in London in 1950. She describes how she and her little boy shared their lives. I will quote her at length:
‘Before, when the men came back from work…the radio emitted words or music softly in the corner, they washed and sat down at their places, with the woman, the child, and whoever else in the house could be inveigled downstairs. Food began emerging from the oven, dish after dish, tea was brewed, beer appeared, off went the jerseys and the jackets, the men sat in their shirtsleeves, glistening with well-being. They all talked, they sang, they told what had happened in their day, they talked dirty – a ritual; they quarelled, they shouted, they kissed and made up and went to bed at twelve or one…And then from one day to the next – but literally from one evening to the next – came the end of good times, for television had arrived and sat like a toad in the corner of the kitchen…It was the end of an exuberant verbal culture.’ (Walking In The Shade, 1997, p.17 -18)
Children need to talk to adults and watch adults. That is why they stare: because they are learning. A toddler watching adults sit around staring at the TV, or their phones, must learn that life is based on the interaction between a person and their screen; the screen is where it’s happening.
We don’t have a TV at home, but our kids do watch stuff on a laptop – there are some great programmes: recently a BBC documentary about burrowing animals with Chris Packham. But my six-year-old daughter still wants what she imagines ‘all the other children’ in her class have: a tablet, an iPhone, loads of telly. As I mentioned before, she is not averse to winding me up. The other day – when the tedious subject of princesses came up – I argued that she didn’t have to plan to get married when she grows up and that’s it:
‘You could do anything! You used to want to be someone who looks after snails…what do you want to do?’
‘I want to sit on the sofa and watch TV all day.’
OK, I probably don’t have to take that too seriously. She just likes TV and she wants more, the same as most kids. I like TV. But it is difficult to stop it from becoming the toad that just swallows everything else.