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Screen-free? No thanks

Retro TV with Clipping Path

‘They’re doing a screen-free week at school,” my wife said

I don’t need much time to ponder my answer. “No.”

Screen-free weeks, during which the family pledges to shut off televisions, computers, cellphones, game systems and all other manner of glowing rectangles for seven days, have become a well-meaning fad. Virtually every school, including our 7-year-old twin daughters’ campus, insists on pushing at least one every year.

The concept might sound utopian to some, but I take it as a personal insult. I am a television critic, a man who spends half his working life watching a TV screen and the other half typing onto a computer screen. If screens are bad, then what am I, some sort of Charles Manson of the LED?

But I’m also a father, one who tries to be diligent on occasion. I reconsidered my ironclad pro-screen stance. The website screenfree.org features idyllic pictures of families romping in fountains, picnicking, fishin’ at the ol’ fishin’ hole. Was I depriving the girls of something important?

At breakfast, I asked the younger twin whether she would like to spend a week without television or video games and instead do fun family activities like riding bikes and playing board games.

“I would not like to do that,” she said with a mix of disdain and horror.

It’s genetic.

I grew up glued to the TV, feeling an inexplicable kinship to the glowing box. I recently discovered a diary I kept in the fifth grade. It contained little of interest, except for a ranked list of my 20 favorite TV shows, from “Star Trek” through “Batman.”

Doomed by their DNA, my girls have been fascinated by screens since they were old enough to look at them. The smaller one is a fiend for video games. Her 5-minutes-older sister, who could use a remote before she could use a toilet, prefers television. But both are fluent in either, and both have a computer savvy that many adults would envy.

“Google is the best search engine,” the younger one declared as she set out to find what the first animal was. “But some people use Bing and Wahoo.” (Cute alert: Yes, she said Wahoo) The other day I found them watching one episode of “Transformers: Rescue Bots” on the television and another on the iPad – at the same time.

Having a screen-free week at our house is like asking an Amish family to try nudism. I don’t deny that keeping them away from commercials has some appeal. The girls have advised me more than once to try OxiClean, to order Pillow Pets and to switch insurance companies. Allstate, it seems, has wholly inferior ads compared with Geico or Nationwide. “But Daddy, Nationwide is on your side.” However, I firmly reject the notion that time spent in front of the television or the computer is inherently bad.

Despite their screen fiendishness, both girls excel at school and are reasonably well-behaved (for 7-year-olds, anyway). “Despite” isn’t even the right word; I should say “because of.” They have learned a lot from television and computers.

Most parents were raised on empty-calorie television, but children’s programming today is often nutritious. “Dinosaur Train” is eons advanced from “Partridge Family 2200 A.D.” A recent viewing of “Veggie Tales” prompted the older sister to ask why, if God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, did Jonah get on a ship to Tarsus? This spurred a lengthy discussion of theology and the geography of the Middle East.

Video games, too, can be terrific learning experiences. Common Core instruction is all about problem-solving, but so is figuring out how to kill all the piggies with just two bluebirds and a boomerang bird. Parents are happy to see their kids play with Legos but fear that Minecraft is somehow a waste of time.

As with any kid-related endeavor, moderation and variety are important. My grandmother would cruelly make me stop watching the “Dialing for Dollars” afternoon movie and go outside during summer vacation. Likewise, I will abruptly shut off the living room TV, confiscate the iPad and make the girls go do something else. (“And, no, you may not watch Netflix on the Xbox in the garage.”)

But I don’t begrudge them their screen time. I do begrudge the attitude that screen time is wasted time, a belief that seems fueled more by nostalgia than reality. Parents recall a childhood of Edenic freedom – but forget all those hours spent complaining that there was nothing to do.

Besides, this summer, the girls and I have a collective project planned that will no doubt please the screen-free advocates. It involves family time and real three-dimensional objects: We’re building a computer to design our own video game. We’ll probably hook it up to Netflix, too.

Contact the writer: Contact the writer at 714-796-7724 or mhewitt@ocregister.com or @WatcherofTV on Twitter or The Watcher on Facebook.

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