Save the Children

Mashtots Poghotz Walking the streets of Yerevan, Charlie Chaplin often turns up on T shirts and storefront posters. Maybe it’s because Charlie’s side-kick, Jackie Coogan, helped to raise millions of dollars for starving Armenian orphans in a 1920s media blitz organized by Near East Relief. The campaign was so effective that you probably heard their meme relayed via your parents’ parents: clear your plate, remember the starving Armenians.

Near East Relief, ancestor to the Peace Corps, retained artists, actors, singers, even made a film, to make their pitch. The campaign proved how well photos and films that depict sad, beautiful faces can compel a critical bit of behavior change: donation. The millions that were raised in this un-precedented effort helped thousands of survivors of “death marches,” like Dana’s grandma. They came south and east, from Western Turkey into Syria, through the mountains.

Lecture Hall, Yerevan State Medical University The largest congregation of pediatric professionals I’ve seen is convened on a Friday to hear New York child psychologists, talking heads beamed over to a large screen in the hall. The discussion is about losing our children to media–to computers in particular. The Americans (ironically enough) are emphasizing what these clinicians already know: the animations and interactives that pour out of the US, among other sites, are endangering family relationships.

As in the US, a high percentage of Armenian children and adolescents continually focus on those pocket computers that we label innocuously as “cell phones.” Toddlers aren’t exempt: television stunts their language development in dose-dependent fashion. I doubt there is a pediatrician practicing in the US today who hasn’t been out-competed by such a machine in her attempt to have a discussion, to build a relationship, with a young one. I know the seated maestros of “World of Warcraft” and its like possess an extraordinary suite of skills, but I don’t want to play, so I can’t relate.

Questions from the audience: “Can you tell us in what ways social media have been studied or used to improve children’s health?” “We now label cigarettes for their negative effects on health; what do you think about doing the same for video games?” “We hear your advice to guide parents to restrict kids’ video game hours, and TV, but how should we do this? We are trying to guide parents and it doesn’t seem to work. What really works?” Stunning, insightful questions that set the experts to spin: “Clearly, we need more studies … No studies have been done … ”

One happy picture of parenting shows us simply admiring the old-fashioned child’s play, the kind that doesn’t rivet their attention through micro-chips, from a distance. A nice way to convey the principles of self-determination–competence, autonomy, relatedness–all at once to ones we love. Interventions for parents of kids with behavior problems like ADHD borrow this approach, and have parents narrating, extolling, though never influencing the play itself. “Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” (Saul Steinberg) A milestone! You’ve rescued yourself from your own boredom! thinks the watching parent. Meanwhile, these machines fit into the lonely caves of our boredom like a key in a lock.

In Dana’s book (Like Water on Stone), set a few years before Near East Relief flew into action, there’s a moment when a three year old is alone at home, waiting for her brother, fighting off boredom by swinging her feet. In 1915, she lives far from the electronic media networks that will soon help rescue her.

Song: feet up, feet down


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