Today I want to write about screen time. If you’re a parent in these crazy modern and financially privileged times, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. Everyone has their thoughts, their criticisms, their frustrations…their judgments of other parents’ thoughts and criticisms. I’ve often hated it. How much is too much? Does it really matter if they spend a little more time on a device? I turned out okay and I played videogames for HOURS and had weekend-long movie marathons! And isn’t the quality more important than the quantity anyway?
All of these questions and experiences lead me to this post today. Which I started writing on Father’s Day, no less! And I’d like to write about a decision I made that I’m pretty happy with. But it’s also kind of an experiment, so I’m posting this as documentation of my current thoughts on all of this, so I can look back on it later, maybe follow up and see how this decision and experiment turned out. It has to do with screens and media consumption and all the ridiculous and sometimes too-stressful parenting decisions that go with all of that. And it all started with my son’s repeated questions about when he might finally be allowed to watch one of my all-time favorite movies — The Matrix.
My son recently turned 13, which basically means that from here on out, his interest in watching R-rated movies and playing M-rated games will only rise at an exponential rate. It feels like whenever the subject comes up, he has friends who have already watched this or that, or played this or that, and it’s always been a balancing act to measure out competing interests like: the movies and games he wants go experience, the movies and games I want him to experience, the social perks of watching and playing the same games as his peers, the types of things I know would be hard for him to emotionally handle, the types of things I’m in no rush for him to be exposed to, not wanting to make him feel like he’d have to watch or play things behind my back in order to experience them, and wanting to help him grow into a thoughtful and critical media consumer….to name just a few. Sheesh, I’m exhausted just writing these concerns out…
In the past, whenever my son asked about watching R-rated movies, I always made sure he understood that the rating was just one criteria of how we decide what he can and can’t watch. That there are PG and PG-13 rated movies that I wouldn’t want him to see, and R-rated movies that were fine for him to watch if he really wanted to. So the big test came when he started to ask about what he knows is one of my favorites: The Matrix. And I’ve put off answering that question for probably over a year. There are a number of reasons why I haven’t allowed it yet:
- From his earliest years, my wife and I made a conscious effort to resist making him watch movies just because either of us really loved it as children or felt any special nostalgic attachment to them. We’ve always wanted to let him figure out these preferences for himself as much as possible.
- The slippery slope of R-rated movies: once we watch one, it’s going to be harder to say no to others.
- More specifically, once we watch The Matrix, he’ll want to watch the sequels…and the second one has that prolonged Zion orgy/Neo and Trinity sex scene, and how am I going to watch sex scenes with my son? Is it going to be in the same awkward if-I-don’t-say-anything-maybe-it’ll-pass-more-quickly approach I took as a kid? Or could it be something more positive and productive?
- The Matrix is kind of a dark and gloomy movie. Everything is just kinda heavy, and some freaky stuff goes down. Knowing his general preference for comedies and silliness, I know some of that stuff will stay with him in a negative way – like the interrogation scene where Neo gets “bugged” – especially if we watch it right before bed, which is usually the only time we have to watch things together. I want him to know that it’s ok to decide a movie or a game is just not a good fit for you and abort, no matter how much others around you like it or love it, or how far into it you are.
- If the doors to R-rated and M-rated content need to be opened, I could not think of a way to ensure that content would be navigated in a thoughtful and critical way.
Long story short, I kept putting off my answer. And all credit to my kid, he waited patiently for a looooong time. Asking things like “when do you think you could give me an answer?” and when I was obviously avoiding it even went to “when do you think you can give me an idea of when you might have an answer for me?” I am crazy blessed with a super awesome kid, because it is important to him that he does what’s right. But I also couldn’t shake the fact that if I kept delaying it any longer, he might feel pushed to watch or play things behind his parents’ back, which – as much as I can help it – is not a decision I ever want him to feel forced to make. It was also clear to me that if those doors did have to open, I would rather take those first steps through them with him than having him walk through them alone.
So, I finally gave him an answer! I was like: dude, I get that you’re going to want to watch more R-rated movies, and play M-rated games. And I want you to be able to do that. But R-rated games and M-rated movies covers a LOT of content, some of which I’ll probably never allow you to watch or play. But there’s a lot that I will. But I want you to be better equipped than I ever was before you start watching and playing these things. Because I wasn’t prepared at all. So here’s my proposal: there are a few documentaries and videos I want us to watch together that I really like because they both cover things like representation in media, but also some of them do a good job of kind of modeling how to think about these movies and video games. After we get through those, we can watch The Matrix. The other thing we’ve never done is watched a movie with a sex scene, and the second Matrix movie has a long one. And I don’t want us to do the thing that happened in my house, which was usually either someone saying “COVER YOUR EYES!”, or sitting in awkward silence. “So what should we do?” he asks. I’m not sure, I tell him. I need to think about it some more. Maybe fast forward? Because I don’t think there is a single sex scene out there that is actually necessary for the movie it’s in. “I like that idea. What are we watching? And when can we start?” he says.
First of all, I want to take a moment to celebrate what I feel was a pretty friggin solid parenting move! Those don’t come up very often, you know? Where you do something as a parent and you just feel like “YES” rock-solid 100% that was the right move, no doubt, no concern about future scarring of child. In my 13+ years of parenting, I only have one other instance that comes to mind right away, and it had to do with the way I facilitated what could have been a very difficult family conversation where we had to make the decision to part with one of our two recently-acquired beagle puppies, pictured below:
Yeah. I killed that one.
No! Not the puppy! The facilitating. We just gave the puppy to my sister. BUT LOOK AT HOW CUTE THEY ARE.
So what are we watching before pushing open those gates a little bit? I’m so glad you asked! Here’s what I’ve got planned so far:
The first is an awesome documentary from The Representation Project: Miss Representation. This doc does a really good job of laying out just how damaging and harmful the representation of girls and women across our media really is. With TONS of media examples, interviews with girls and women affected by it, interviews with experts and activists, etc, it’s a powerful and sometimes jarring dive into just SOME of the real-life consequences of negative media representation.
We may or may not also watch The Rep Project’s documentary on American masculinity, The Mask You Live In. It’s a little bit less media-specific in its focus than Miss Representation, but it does do some really important work that I may decide is worth him watching. Actually, as I’m writing this, I’m more and more convinced we’ll probably end up watching it.
The next thing we will definitely watch is just about everything made by Anita Sarkeesian and her team over at Feminist Frequency. I have been a huge fan of their work for a very long time. At the very least, we would watch the Tropes vs. Women and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. They even have some awesome curriculum to go along with many of their videos. There are a couple of things I really love about these series: 1) they do a great job of pointing out sexist and misogynistic tendencies across media, especially video games; 2) they use and show SO MANY EXAMPLES from SO MANY GAMES and movies; 3) they do a fantastic job in modeling how one should lay out a critical argument – introduce the subject, lay out your main points, back up your points with real coherent examples, summarize your ideas, and clarify why the thing you just argued for is important in the grand scheme of things.
To give you an idea of some of the things they cover, here are some of the titles from Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series: “Damsel in Distress,” “Ms. Male Character,” “Women as Reward,” “Women as Background Decoration,” “Lingerie is Not Armor,” “Strategic Butt Coverings,” etc. They also have another series titled Conversations with Pop Culture where they dive into a whole bunch of other topics. One of my favorites is their two-parter on Lego and Gender.
So that’s what I’ve got so far. I know it’s mostly focused on sex and gender, partly because that’s generally been my area of focus and interest. All of the resources I mentioned above do acknowledge the intersectionality of race and other identity markers with their work on sex and gender in various ways, but I would love to find some things that do go more specifically into race. The ones that comes to the top of my head are Ava Duvernay’s 13th, and James Baldwin’s I am Not Your Negro, both of which are pretty intense. But also so incredibly important. Another one we might watch, especially since it’s so movie-specific, would be the docu-series on Netflix They’ve Gotta Have Us, which does a really nice job of tracing some of the history of black actors on screen. What I like about this one is that it doesn’t just focus on Hollywood, but also looks at some of that history in the UK. It features interviews with just about anybody who’s anybody in black cinema: John Boyega, Debbie Allen, David Oyelowo, Ruth E. Carter, Laurence Fishburne, Delroy Lindo, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Whoopi Goldberg, and so many others, including the legendary Earl Cameron.
Ultimately, I want to try and remember that my primary job as a parent is not to protect him from the world around him, but to do all I can to prepare him to navigate that world on his own. I partly kept putting off my answer because I could not think of how to provide him with that preparation. This feels like a pretty good start though, so we’ll see how it goes!
So that’s where I’m at. And so it shall be.
If you have any ideas for additional documentaries or videos that could contribute to what I’m trying to do here, please share them in the comments below! I’d also love to hear from other parents about what, if anything, they did with their children and their media choices as they grew older. Of maybe what they wish they had done!
Thanks for reading. And in the words of Feminist Frequency: be critical of the media you love!