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Today's Technology Babysitter: Any Different From Yesterday's?

Back when I was a kid growing up in Texas in the  1970s, the TV was the best babysitter my mom had: Stick Alice in front of Saturday morning cartoons, re-runs of I Dream of Jeannie or Gilligan’s Island, or pretty much any old musical gem (She  had a whole dance routine for “Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Gotta Fly” from Showboat) and she was golden for an hour or two, maybe more.

It was so effective, that it’s perhaps unsurprising that the same phenomenon is continuing today, albeit in updated format. A full 85% of moms admit to using modern technology to keep the kids occupied while they get on with other activities, according to a survey from AO.com.

Sure, there are some crucial differences in cultural norms to consider. 70s moms puffed away on Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultralight 100 menthols—and today’s moms puff away in exertion on the elliptical machine. Yesteryear’s moms used the time to prepare a range of budget-friendly but gastronomically suspect casseroles; today’s moms are trying to find a way to sneak chia seeds and kale into afterschool snacks. My mom had Judy Garland to keep me occupied—today’s mom has the entirety of the open internet, there at their kids’ fingertips.

Oh wait a minute. Let’s think about that. This necessitates parental controls and oversight. And that’s new. And important.

Also, the survey, which polled 1,000 British mums of children aged two to 12, found that children are spending, on average, just under 17 hours a week in front of a screen, or about 2.5 hours of screen time every day. That’s almost double the 8.8 weekly hours spent playing outside.

This gig is sounding worse and worse for the kids. At least I balanced my ABC After-School Special viewing with completely unsupervised rides around the neighborhood on my rusty rainbow Huffy, no helmet required, thank you very much. And I wasn’t in danger of stumbling into an online porn vortex as I flipped in-between the bounty that was the four broadcast channels that I had to choose from, counting PBS.

Somewhat ironically given the widespread indulgence of technology, the research also found that many mums worry about their impact of gadget time on their children.

"One of the standout statistics was the fact that 44% of parents worry that technology could be having a negative impact on their child's social skills development,” said AO.com group brand director Andrew Kirkcaldy. “Add to that the fact that 31% of parents don't feel their children are getting enough outdoor play time and it's clear that the parents AO.com surveyed would like to see their children enjoying some of the activities they themselves enjoyed as children."

One feels the need to point out that the last time one checked, the parent was still the parent and the child still the child—taking the iPad, video game controller or phone away is something that parents can do. Honest. It’s true.

But it's not all doom and gloom for the traditional childhood activities. The survey also found that the modern-day child isn’t a total cyborg-in-the-making. About 67% of children read a book in a typical week, and over half ride a bike.

"It's great to see some of the more traditional pastimes still playing a role in childhood playtime,” Kirkcaldy said. “And both TV and more modern technology really can, in moderation, enhance learning experiences and play experiences for children."

Indeed. And let me suggest this: As with most things, moderation is a GREAT idea.

Sure, some like to nostalgically long for the “simpler” times when life was “more innocent.” But was it ever? Every era has its share of opportunities for child endangerment (Wonder Bread roll-ups and dad’s Hustler Magazine, anyone?), and technology can be a killer babysitter (not literally!) when used responsibly. Be aware and take charge, moms and dads—get those parental controls working and kick the kids outside without a screen every once in a while. It’s all good.

I also have a humble suggestion: What about bringing pre-digital era to the digital era, with a range of awesome cultural mash-up apps? There could be a “Which Judy Garland character are you” story spinner; the “Life Without Seatbelts” 70s’s crash simulator (featuring Evel Knieval footage—oh please, featuring Evel Knieval footage!); and even a “What to Do with Lil Smokies” recipe index. The possibilities are endless.

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