I come from an era before parents limited screen time. In fact, “screen time” wasn’t even a term anybody used when I was a kid, seeing as how smartphones and the internet weren’t around yet.
Television, for its part, was widely regarded as garbage yet voraciously consumed. Much like White Claw Hard Seltzer today.
Although my family kept the TV going for hours at a stretch, my parents did have a rule that my sisters and I weren’t supposed to turn on the tube until 3pm each day. I wouldn’t call that regulation a meaningful limit on screen time, though, because the 3pm rule only applied to summers and holidays—we’d be in school on weekdays before 3pm the rest of the time. Plus, exceptions were made for Saturday morning cartoons and sick days, when you could lie there on the couch and watch The Price Is Right and Green Acres reruns while you suffered. Daytime soaps were forbidden on the grounds that they contained too much hanky-panky.
My parents banned a number of post-3pm shows for the same offense. Our family was heavily involved in a Southern Baptist megachurch where one of the central tenets was that secular culture contained entirely too much hanky-panky. The pastor once said from the pulpit that HBO might as well stand for “Hell’s Box Office.”
Seems like Cinemax would have been a better target, both for the T&A-filled late-night movies it aired at the time and for the easy pun with “sin.” Cinemax?! he could have thundered. More like Sin to the Max!
At any rate, we were immune to the diabolical lure of the premium movie channels because we only had basic cable. We also couldn’t succumb to the sexy videos and spring break debauchery on MTV because our local cable provider refused to carry it to avoid corrupting public morals. My sisters and I had to make do with VH1, which is why we know very little of Pearl Jam and a lot of Jon Secada.
When it came to policing network programming, Mom and Dad took a scattered approach. Among the shows we weren’t allowed to watch were obvious parental bugbears such as Married… with Children (for general raunchiness), less self-evident offenders like Roseanne (I think because she kissed a woman that time and, besides, the family’s house was always a mess), and, finally, a category of head-scratchers that covered Blossom, Ren & Stimpy, and pretty much any talk show (don’t ask me).
But then there were series that you think wouldn’t appeal to dedicated evangelicals such as ourselves that we nevertheless caught every episode of. These included Cheers, about a bunch of drunks at a bar; Murphy Brown, which centered on the liberal news media and was condemned by then–vice president Dan Quayle for glorifying single motherhood; and, of course, my all-time favorite sitcom, The Golden Girls—the whole point of which is that hanky-panky need not end at menopause.
I would argue that these inconsistencies point to a larger ambivalence toward the evangelical party line that was present in my family all along. But that’s a topic for another day.
It’s enough at present to acknowledge that I watched too much TV when I was a child and teenager, and much of it was trash—not in the sense of raunchy so much as idiotic. Am I proud of being the world’s foremost authority on Saved by the Bell trivia? I am not.
That said, TV presented—albeit in an artificial and narrow fashion (with regard to class and race and gender and sexuality)—attitudes, ways of living, ways of laughing, and sometime even ways of loving that opened an illuminating window on worlds beyond my small sphere of church, church, Christian school, and church. For certain 7-year-olds, encountering the anarchic camp of something like Pee-wee’s Playhouse can impart all at once a sense of validation as well as possibility.
Books can do the same thing, but the good ones take longer than 30 minutes to get through.