And very much for kids who are "bored"
“Entertain” comes from the Old French, meaning to keep someone in a certain frame of mind. In the 1600s, it was often used in the context of hospitality, to refer to the means by which a host kept his or her guest in a state of pleasant enjoyment or gratification.
Today, to be entertained means maintaining a state of amusement. More often than not, it’s a state we feel we are owed—or at the very least, being deprived of if we do not feel sufficiently diverted during our waking life.
This expectation has trickled down to our children and how we raise them, especially within my generation of aging millennials.
These days, it’s an important parental objective to keep our kids constantly entertained (so that they will be “happy,” so that they will remember childhood as “fun,” and so forth). The other benefit to adults is that constant entertainment is pacifying. I’ve never seen anything work quite as well as a screen to get a toddler in a full-blown tantrum to shut up and sit still. Their eyes glaze over; they go a little slack-jawed. The grown-up can finally hear themselves think (or take a shower or make dinner). (The consequence, of course, is that taking away a screen leads to an equally outrageous tantrum, and thus a vicious cycle is born.)
The vacancy is what I find troubling about the omnipresent entertainment of little ones. And our littlest ones are watching a lot of content: The average amount of screen time among U.S. children aged 0-8 is 2.25 hours per day. Those numbers increase by leaps and bounds the older the child gets. (And note this survey was from 2020, before we all used our devices a whole lot more.)
I’m not against kids having a good time. Play, of course, is vital to childhood development, in all kinds of ways. But entertainment, typically, is not play. Play involves action, connection, problem-solving, and language development. Entertainment—which overwhelmingly means watching a TV show, YouTube video, or movie—actively undermines all of the benefits of play.
The vacant look of a child watching a video is not an act; their faces mirror what is happening in their small heads. While consuming screen content, kids become more or less brain dead. The brain of a preschooler who spends two hours a day on a screen shows massive underdevelopment and disorganization of white matter compared with the preschooler who does not (source).
When children read a book or listen to a book being read, especially on a lap, their brains light up: They create positive connectivity between the areas of the brain responsible for vision, language, attention, and concentration. But when they watch a video or a screen, regardless of its purported “educational” content, none of those same neural pathways light up. The longer they spend on a screen, the less coordinated their brains are between those vital areas (for vision, language, attention, and concentration; source). And this is just one neurological consequence among many: More screen time is associated with sleep problems, memory and retention issues, diminished vocabularies, reduced fine motor and social skills, and lack of creativity (source; source).
Beyond the frightening problems screens pose for little brains, I’m interested in the long-term consequences of a generation of children who expect to be constantly entertained. If you are perpetually waiting for an adult to give you your tablet or even give you something to play with, you are continually deprived of agency and independence.
I’ve been thinking so much about childhood agency lately (per prior post, below), and all of this seems connected to me.
Children are the most vulnerable and powerless among us. Even in happy families, children often feel like they have no control over their own lives. Adults get to decide everything. They have to follow all of these seemingly arbitrary, predetermined rules. Increasingly, in our culture, children have wait for adults to give them permission to do anything—even, it seems, to be entertained. (“You can watch these videos for one hour and then you have to turn it off,” etc.)
This leads to, I believe, a generation of children who have no personal independence; who become intolerant of discomfort, boredom, hardship, or solitude; who suffer from a lack of imagination and creativity; and who, ultimately, have diminished interior lives.
I’m perhaps more extremist about screens than most, given how I was raised. Growing up homeschooled in a family in which television (and the internet, when it came to us) were heavily regulated, I was raised to view media as a selective privilege, like dessert to which we were occasionally treated. (My mom was so serious about limiting TV that we actually believed, when we were small, that we did not have the physical capacity to turn the TV on, like, only adult hands could control the remote and the TV “on” button.)
I watch a decent amount of TV myself now, and Guion and I love to watch a pretentious film, but I have a deep appreciation for how much my parents restricted our media consumption when we were children. They were thoughtful about it. They didn’t, like many of their peers, teach us that culture was the devil. Instead, we watched movies (and definitely some movies that would have caused their evangelical friends’ faces to blanch with disapproval) as a family. When we got older, my sisters and I were allowed to watch whatever was on Turner Classic Movies or “Gilmore Girls” on the weekend. But media was always offered as a special occasion—never as something that was persistently available to us. We had to ask permission—and the answer was sometimes “no.” (This is obviously unimaginably harder now, when more than half of preschoolers have their own tablets or personal devices, not to mention every other child older than them.) In this way, when we were young, we never became dependent on passive entertainment. We were turned loose in the woods. We read stacks and stacks of books. We played dress-up and built forts and waged water-balloon war against the cul-de-sac boys. We were too busy to watch screens.
It’s this kind of limitation that I want to encourage in our own family: to view media as a privilege, as an infrequent treat to enjoy together, as a family unit.
We’ve held the line on no screen time for our kids. They FaceTime with family, but that’s the extent of their exposure. We are excited to share favorite movies with them one day, but we are trying to stave off the entertainment onslaught for as long as possible.
Where we really need to improve is encouraging independent play.
Guion said to me the other day: “This is an opinion that is not going to be popular in this household, but… I think we read to the kids too much.”
I was at first offended, but his point was wise. Guion was saying that we’ve essentially become their entertainment, their personal reading devices. Every morning, while we are trying to do a hundred things, the first thing the boys demand is that we read them a book. We love reading to them, of course, and we’ll always do a lot of it, but they miss out on the aforementioned independence and agency when they’re always demanding that we serve as their readers. They don’t do as much free play as we’d like because they’re always being read to (#nerds).
We’re trying to correct this, and some days we’re more successful than others. I’m all ears for any advice on this front. In the meantime, I’ll continue being dramatic about screens and panicking, in advance, about what to do about school choice when all the schools are handing out tablets like they’re candy. xo
“What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985)
Collected Poems, Jack Gilbert
Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald