Remember when television was screen-time?
We all grew up watching it: cartoons, sitcoms, skit comedy, music videos, soapies … And we turned out okay, didn’t we? So if our kids watch Netflix or YouTube or any of the many catch-up on-demand services on offer, there’s no real difference. Or Is there?
Just because content is often delivered via this device we still call a “television” doesn’t mean their viewing experience is akin to the one we remember from the 80s, 90s or 00s. And with the average five-year-old consuming 4.5 hours of it a day, it's essential that parents consider how the medium has changed.
The fact is, the digital viewing options are kids enjoy make "TV" a vastly different experience to the broadcast television you and I grew up with. And those differences make a big difference in shaping our kids’ habits of mind, body and attention.
The Magic Pudding Effect
Remember the Australian children’s classic The Magic Pudding? It’s about a magical dessert that never disappears, no matter how much or how often it’s eaten. You might say that TV in today’s digital world is a magic pudding too - an inexhaustible supply of entertainment and distraction.
Thanks to a plethora of platforms - from YouTube to Netflix to Disney Plus to catch-up TV, and back again - the content offerings are endless and available on demand 24/7. And, even when parents impose boundaries, kids are well aware of that. There is no “structural” limit to what they can watch, as there was a generation ago, when children’s programming was limited and brief.
When Fat Cat said goodnight, it was all over. Today, it’s never over.
That makes tuning out exceedingly difficult for kids - and maintaining sensible boundaries a struggle for parents.
Autoplay: The Never-Ending Story
The developers of on-demand viewing, whether for kids or adults, have a single goal in mind: keep users watching. YouTube’s Autoplay feature is the ultimate weapon in the war on attention.
Turned on by default, Autoplay, as you probably know, automatically plays a new selection each time a video ends. The “Up Next” feature suggests further viewing via an inbuilt algorithm based on revious content - Autoplay takes users there automatically.
These features entice kids down a rabbit hole of content - and there are some big problems with that.
One is simply the sheer quantity of passive screen-time they encourage. By doing nothing, children are led on an endless journey of viewing, viewing and more viewing.
Even worse, the rabbit hole may lead kids to places they never intended to go.
An experiment conducted by BuzzFeed News, for example, found in one instance that it took just nine steps through YouTube’s Autoplay to go from an educational clip about the 116th United States Congress to an anti-immigration rant from a designated hate organisation.
The On-Demand Generation
Streaming and on-demand services are incredible resources, offering up a vast world of entertainment and ideas available whenever and wherever we want it. It’s a level of accessibility that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago.
But all that freedom comes at a cost - and research is beginning to suggest that our kids may be paying a steep price for the privilege of viewing video entertainment (aka “television”) literally anywhere they happen to be, in public or in private, at home or out and about, in the car on the way to school, standing in line at the supermarket, or waiting to be served at a cafe.
Deficits in socialisation, creativity, attention-span, the ability to delay gratification or to “self soothe,” are among the areas of concern experts are now pointing to.
This is television - but not as we knew it.
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It's not just how much screen-time we use. It's the way we use it.