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Growing up without a TV

Feb 1, 2023

When I was a kid, we didn’t have a TV in my house. These days it’s probably not super unusual, but back then in the 90s, it was. There was no netflix, no smart phones, no laptops and no internet - television was the entertainment medium of choice. I don’t think there was a single other child in my class who didn’t have a TV at home. It was a conscious choice from my parents. They wanted to encourage us to entertain ourselves in more active pursuits. It worked - my siblings and I became voracious readers. 

We’d go to the library each week with a big plastic box and fill it up with books. We all loved to read. I’d happily spend hours with my face in a book, oblivious to the outside world. On one occasion, I was so engrossed the book that I absentmindedly smashed the window I was leaning against and nearly fell into the lavender bush below.

In grade 5, we had the MS Readathon. Most kids read about 10 books. I read 120. 

It’s interesting to reflect on the impact that this had. I haven’t explored studies but I’d imagine there’s probably a correlation between the amount of time a child spends reading and their vocabulary and ability to perform well academically. It certainly seemed to help me. I did very well at school (gifted and talented programs in primary school/high school and ultimately an ATAR of 98.5).

You might expect that as a child/tweenager, I would’ve resented the situation. Perhaps I’d moan “My cruel parents didn’t let me watch TV” to the other kids in the playground? I don’t remember feeling that way. I enjoyed reading and besides, screentime wasn’t completely non-existent for me. We had a computer at home and I was allowed to play games for half an hour each day over the weekend (I’d often sneak more time). I also went to after school care and would normally watch The Simpsons most evenings. My grandparents had TVs and I’d be glued to the cartoon network when we went over to their place. However, if you added it up, I’d wager that my cumulative exposure to passive visual entertainment was a lot lower than most kids.

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Table of Contents

What happens when you get a TV

In some ways, I long for that time again. Being able to hold my attention on a book has felt elusive. After I got to high school, I stopped reading as much for pleasure. We did eventually get a TV around that time and I also got access to the internet. Easy access to more dopamine inducing activities made reading less of a draw card. I didn’t quite become a couch potato but I did watch more TV and definitely spent a lot of time playing online games like Runescape in my teenage years. My mum used to describe it as “mindless gaming” but on reflection, I don’t think it was. I tended to play games with an element of strategy and actually learnt how to code via Runescape - I joined a community of passionate cheaters who wrote code for bots so we didn’t have to sit there all day clicking on rocks to mine ore.

Aside from learning to code, all that screentime wasn’t great for me. My grades started to slip in year 9 and 10 and I realised it needed to change. I started to set limits for myself on how much time I’d spend on Runescape each day. Being self enforced, those limits weren’t super effective but I did start studying more and made it through year 12 with strong results. 

I’ve had plenty of time to experiment since then and have found that more screentime generally equals less happiness for me. 

Recreating that low stimulation environment

In the last few years, I’ve been on a quest to restore my environment to its childhood state. I can’t quite get rid of the internet and I don’t have as much free time as I had when I was a kid, but I can shape my environment in that direction. I don’t have a TV nor a Netflix/Binge/Disney+ subscription. I’ve locked down my computers and phone with Focus Bear so that hyper stimulating websites/apps are blocked. The result is that I’m reading again. I’ve made it part of my morning routine to spend 15 minutes reading a work related book and in the evening, I read a book for pleasure. 

I’m very grateful to my parents for setting up my childhood environment in a way that promoted deep attention and I hope to be able to do the same if I have children of my own.

Feb 1, 2023

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