Then and Now: Reflections on Reducing Screen Time

By: Jenny Gamson

I am a child of the 60s. I was raised in an activist household – in 1969, the whole family drove through the night to Washington, DC, to attend the largest anti-war demonstration in history. It was a household that not only limited television time to one hour a day, much to the consternation of my brother and I, but where there was also a ban on what my wise parents called “television toys.” Though they themselves were raised in the radio era, my parents were ahead of their time – they are among the first generation of parents who realized the damaging impact television could have on kids. They imparted upon me what I now appreciate as a healthy skepticism about how information is conveyed and consumed.

I am a parent of three kids born in the 1990s. With three kids under the age of 5, keeping them occupied without a screen became a near-obsessive quest. They definitely watched TV and videos, and I admit that often it was as an “electronic babysitter” so that I could get something done around the house. But I saw what happened to them when they watched more than an hour or so, they would become, as my younger son said, “amazed into the TV.”  It was a challenge to tear them away from it. So instead, we spent hours building “gnome houses” with sticks, walking to the local pet store, washing the car and drawing with sidewalk chalk.

I often think about how lucky I am to have had the luxury to parent the way I did. I have an advanced degree in early childhood education. I have a car that my children can wash, and a safe neighborhood where they can play. And coming from a place of enormous privilege, I am also deeply, gravely concerned about parents who don’t have resources – whether it’s money, access, time, knowledge, or all of these things – to create screen-free experiences. 

Professionally, I have worked with all kinds of children and families in a range of settings both in the US and abroad. In my experience, nearly every parent truly, deeply, and instinctively wants the best for their child. As a professional, my passion is to help them do the very best job they can for their child – whether through direct service, removing barriers, or providing resources. My work as Development and Communications Director at CCFC is a natural next step. CCFC works to protect children from the effects of harmful marketing, and we are the only organization which is solely dedicated to doing this. It is an honor to help support this mission.

Before I came to work at CCFC, I spent a good deal of time looking at the CCFC website. I read the kids and screens fact sheet with horror – while not surprising, seeing the numbers were shocking even to a seasoned professional like me. I have come to see screen time use, the insidious advertising that accompanies it, and the way marketers skirt regulations aimed at protecting children as high-tech victimization of children. Parents today are more challenged than ever to reduce screen time. Not only does it take time and money that many families simply don’t have to create screen-free activities, but there is advertising everywhere, much more than even fifteen years ago when I had young children. 

With the likes of things like Google’s You Tube Kids and the “unboxing” of sponsored toys, which uses children to sell to other children, it is easier than ever for kids to get “amazed” into all kinds of screens. And the constant exposure creates a craving for not only the “television toys” of my youth, but also for unhealthy food, expensive clothing, and, as children grow into adulthood, houses, cars, gadgets, and lifestyles which are beyond the reach of so many of us.

We need to ask ourselves as parents, grandparents, professionals, community members and voting Americans: what will the impact be for the millions of children who are spending so much time in front of screens, bombarded with ubiquitous pop up ads, brand placement, uncensored content, and more? What will the long-term effects be on their minds, bodies and psyches? How will they learn healthy skepticism? How will they engage as community members and citizens in our country? Increased commercialism in children’s lives hurts us all, no matter our age, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic status. And with the gap between the privileged and less privileged widening, the importance of communicating effectively with diverse range of stakeholders is more important than ever. CCFC is actively trying to improve our messaging, and I hope that we’ll hear from many of our supporters you while we do this.

I am so lucky to have found within our CCFC staff four other incredibly smart and committed co-workers who share my concerns for children and our world. I am already getting a sense of the passion and commitment of our supporters. And, finally, we have a strong Board of Directors who are similarly engaged. I am grateful to you all, and I look forward to many years of working together to garner support for this great organization.