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The new babysitter

Sam Watson • Apr 15, 2018 at 9:00 AM

When I was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, television was Mom’s best babysitter. Syndicated reruns of “Batman,” “Star Trek,” “Bonanza,” “The Big Valley” and “The Monkees” were enough to keep my younger brother and me occupied while she did the laundry.

We had the run of the neighborhood in those days without much supervision, so we were outside as much as we were in, but TV was perfect for a wet or cold day. We were the first “Sesame Street” generation, so those Muppets, “The Electric Company” and “Zoom” actually offered learning opportunities.

Still, the armchair critics claimed my generation watched too much TV. We probably did. I still do. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube are steadily consuming my brain.

Every generation for the last 75 years has had its electronic babysitter. For my Dad, it was radio. We had the “boob tube” as it was known at the time. For those who followed, it was video games and then personal computers. My now-adult nephews remain addicted. Again, the critics chirped, saying the hours fixed on gameplay and the web were damaging young minds.

Today, the techno-babysitter is mobile. Smartphones and tablets rule. Show me a kid over the age of 7 without one or both, and I’ll probably faint.

There are valid reasons parents hand their children these devices. Tablets open up endless educational opportunities, and the sooner a child is acclimated to technology the better. Parents also like being able to keep track of their kids when out of sight, and a mobile phone allows for texts and calls when necessary.

But now I’m going to sound like an old codger. I’d argue that modern kids really are too plugged in. They’re glued to their devices all the time.

These devices encompass radio, TV, movie theater, video game, camera, telegraph and telephone all in one. It’s no wonder kids are so attached.

The differences between then and now are mobility and immediacy. Today’s kids never have to be away from their music, shows and games, and they can stay connected with their friends at all times using Snapchat and other social apps.

Earbuds are in, and noses are stuck in the screen. Linus’ security blanket has been replaced by an iPhone.

Remember when parents relied on kids’ menus with games, puzzles and crayons to distract their children in restaurants? You’ll still find them, but kids largely ignore them in favor of their devices.

It’s easy for parents to enjoy the peace of a child engrossed in a YouTube music video with headphones in. I’m sure Mom would have loved having smartphones to distract her battling brats in the grocery store.

Of course, children are not the only guilty parties. We’re all too connected with our heads bowed toward Facebook when we could be engaged in meaningful conversation with friends and family right there in the room.

But just try getting a child to willingly set a device aside and focus on what you’re saying. Try taking a 9 year old to school each morning. You may have to compete with a phone just to get ready, out the door and into the car. We are fostering a generation incapable of meaningful personal communication and without the ability to focus away from the entertaining distractions.

It’s time we all unplugged a bit, and it’s time we unplugged our kids a lot.

Sam Watson is content director at Johnson City Press and a proud volunteer grandpa. Reach him at swatson@johnsoncitypress.com.

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