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TV, Video Game and Computer Screens

Charlie on the family computer in the office in 2003. He could actually be doing schoolwork here.

Charlie on the family computer in the office in 2003. He could actually be doing schoolwork here.

The most difficult activities to regulate in our house were watching TV or movies and playing video games. What we can all do with our various screens nowadays is a wonder, but they are simply too seductive for the children. None of them enjoy reading, not the way that we parents enjoyed it. Apart from soccer and socializing, none of them enjoy anything as much or as often as their screens.

We have friends who take extreme measures in an attempt to keep their children away from screens. Some have no television programming in the house: the screens then serve for movies alone or games. But ultimately, this isn’t going to work. Screens are simply too pervasive and satisfying in so many ways, even as they can numb the viewer. There’s no real way around them apart from an Amish lifestyle.

The problem with PCs is illustrated her: video games can be played on computers! Here is Alex, looking rather pleased with himself in 2006. Same family computer.

The problem with PCs is illustrated her: video games can be played on computers! Here is Alex, looking rather pleased with himself in 2006. Same family computer.

Plus, we don’t want to discourage computer literacy, because at a minimum their studies depend on it, and quite a few careers require at least some familiarity with computers. Nick began working, as in earning money, as a computer programmer even before graduating High School, and has been doing so ever since. He’ll still play video games with his brothers, years after leaving home, but his career is a testament to the value of those screens.

Much as we bemoan them, we furnished probably a lot of different screens and devices to use them, probably too many, as the children developed a taste for them. The PC in both the above pictures was initially my work PC when we moved in together, in my office with no children allowed on it. Tetris was my exclusive domain then!!

Alban watching TV in May 2001. The armchair had been grandma's in Marlow.

Alban watching TV in May 2001. The armchair had been grandma’s in Marlow.

But when I upgraded to a laptop for work, at Wilson Sonsini in 1998, this PC moved into the office and, as the photos show, the children shared it.

Then, beginning with Nick for his 13th birthday in 1999, individual children began having their own PCs. Nick’s was an eMachines, not exactly top of the line, with a cheap printer thrown in, and he was in heaven! Within the next year or two, Daphne and Alban each had her or his first PC from us, as did Tom from his grandfather.

Charlie, with the hypnotized expression evoked by the TV, and discretely lodged between two armchairs in 2001.

Charlie, with the hypnotized expression evoked by the TV, and discretely lodged between two armchairs in 2001.

On the video games front, grandma had already started Nick on a console (I think it was a Nintendo 64) early on, don’t remember when but she died in 1996, and more consoles were acquired with monotonous regularity. There were a Game Cube, an X-Box or two, a PlayStation 1 and 2 (I think), you name it; if it was a hit at school, we ended up owning it.

It took only a few short years for the games to evolve from handheld consoles with their built-in mini screens, which already forcefully grabbed the children’s attention, to the handheld controllers for monster consoles with increasingly sophisticated capabilities and lifelike full-screen graphics: (think Halo or FIFA on X-Box or Playstation), not forgetting equally sophisticated prices! And of course, TV screen sizes were increasing at the same time

These latter monster consoles and screens filled their respective adolescent years and, along with cell phones (beginning in 2003 for the big kids), PCs and cars, created all sorts of budgetary challenges for the parents.

When I moved out, there were both an XBox 360 and Playstation 3 in the house, each as heavily used as their various Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony predecessors. These parents had no willpower!

Baby bottles and apples do not distract us from our screen. They add to the enjoyment! May 2001.

Baby bottles and apples do not distract us from our screen. They add to the enjoyment! May 2001.

Needless to say, modern PCs also double as DVD players as well as video game consoles, and the slippery slope turned into a ski run. By allowing, even encouraging, computer literacy, dutiful parents effectively countenance watching all kinds of videos and playing all kinds of video games.

We tried to adjust our permissions to keep things under control, for example by rationing the TV and video games at times. But once the devices are in the home, the children could never get enough of them, one way or another, and it was a constant battle.

When the children's friends come over, the principal activity is often video games. Charlie is with a group of hiss friends, all immersed in the Game Cube in the living room, in 2006.

When the children’s friends come over, the principal activity is often video games. Charlie is with a group of hiss friends, all immersed in the Game Cube in the living room, in 2006.

Looking back, I’m not sure that it was worth it. Of our children, if any were going to lose themselves in video and video games, at the expense of being productive in other domains (and that was our real worry), she or he was going to do so anyway, at least to some degree. Those who were going to find other productive outlets and activities and fit the video games around them did so too.

It’s almost as if what we parents wanted for them by deterring their screen activities had nothing to do with how they turned out.

Tom and Alex on their Gameboys in 2003.

Tom and Alex on their Gameboys in 2003.

I’m probably missing something significant here. But looking back on our family’s life together, I sometimes have the feeling that the things which we did deliberately to improve our children’s lot, make them happier and point them in the direction of self fulfillment, were all but meaningless.

Not that we didn’t have an impact on them, far from it. But as they grew up and started spreading their wings, the impact which we had seemed to be much more about who we were and how we lived our lives, and much less about the directions which we intentionally tried to lead them in.

Our four younger boys all playing the video game of the moment together early in 2004.

Our four younger boys all playing the video game of the moment together early in 2004.

Plus, and I didn’t really realize this as we were going through those years, video games were a key social catalyst for all of our boys. Daphné rarely used them with her friends, but all of the boys did to varying degrees. That’s the difference between video games and TVs. The latter are a personal and passive experience: not the games. The boys routinely hung out with each other and their friends around their and their friends’ video games, consoles and screens. You can see that in some of these pictures.

Over time they multiply!! Nick is in Charlie's room here, adding his laptop to Charlie's eMachines so that he can use two screens. Not sure why, but hey, double your pleasure!

Over time they multiply!! Nick is in Charlie’s room here in 2007, adding his laptop to Charlie’s eMachines so that he can use two screens. Not sure why, but hey, double your pleasure!

They had their own language when they were playing, their own excitements and laughter, all built on a shared knowledge of the games that they were playing. If you caught something from outside their world, a group laugh, or a comment that made no sense to you, and asked for an explanation, just to know what was going on, there was an awkward silence. This was their world, and they were happy there. For us parents, it was best to leave well alone.

Here are other family hobbies, appearing on other pages: swimming, soccer, diving, surfing, homework, more soccer, trains, funfairs, mountain biking, stamping, more soccer.