Breaking out of the ‘Baby Shark’ trap

Breaking out of the ‘Baby Shark’ trap

There is a very slim chance that you do not know what ‘Baby Shark’ is. I say slim because the numbers actually point in this direction. As of the writing of this piece, the top 3 versions of this “song” have a total of 9.6 Billion views on Youtube, with over 6.7B views to the top single video. Yes, billion with a B. If you consider that the population of the world is somewhere around 7.8 Billion, it becomes very likely that you have heard this song.

Still, in case you are someone who isn’t aware of this mega-successful song let me tell you. It is a song, a nursery rhyme, primarily targeted at toddlers which tells a story of a family of sharks using easy repeating ultra addictive rhymes and bright cheerful colors. There are 100s of variations of this song that came out when the first one became really popular with almost all of them having moderate success. This song is a cultural phenomenon in itself. It has been played in clubs and there is a viral video of protestors in Lebanon singing this song to calm a toddler when he got overwhelmed with the protests. Investors definitely are loving it. As the numbers show this song is not limited by any factors that divide humanity across the globe. Kids in non-English speaking countries remember the lyrics to this as well as those who understand what it means. I am trying really hard to think of a similar cultural unifying phenomenon that can make sense to or is relatable to us adults. Maybe “Gangnam Style” but not even close in scale, interestingly also from Korea.

Meera loves Baby Shark. I mean love love. In the past, I have used this song to calm her down when she is panicking, get her to eat when she was being fussy about eating, and just generally use it to occupy her time while my wife and I worked, or even ate in peace. Up until a couple of months back I used to think that I am a good, responsible father because I have subscribed to the premium ad-free version of Youtube so that my baby is not exposed to any of the harmful, mind-altering effects of ads. Every time when we needed some time for ourselves, or when Meera was vehemently demanding for it - we would set her down in front of the TV with Baby Shark on. One after another similar videos, made specifically for kids, would come up on the screen full of colors and easy to remember tunes. She would sing along with the lyrics and act out the dance steps which she had memorized just by the virtue of repetitive viewing. We thought of this as an improvement in cognitive skills. She learned the alphabets and counting till 20 just from Youtube with minimal to no reinforcement from our just other than letting her watch Youtube. We lived under the misconception that we were doing a good job as parents and we had everything under control. Watching 2-4 hours of TV per day is normal for a child and there is nothing to worry about. Sure sometimes she would get a little aggressive when we would want to stop her or how she would get fussy when we tried to watch something on TV and demand that “Baby Shark” be put back on but that’s just normal behavior. Or so I thought.

Baby shark’ trap

I have always been a little privacy-minded person. As someone in tech who knows how all the different tracking mechanisms work I have always taken steps, even if small, to ensure that I have at least a semblance of control over my life when it comes to privacy. I try to make sure that I minimize being tracked as much as possible or rather as much as possible without possibly disrupting my life. This means I accepted being tracked by Google and Gmail but stopped using Facebook for good. It means I have ad and tracking blockers installed on all the devices I use as well as a dedicated mini-computer running 24x7 solely with the purpose of blocking anything that I trying to track me. I use the paid versions of every single OTT app, including Youtube, so that we are never shown any targeted ad ever. I have been like this for a very long time and by now I have found a decent equilibrium where I am happy with the data I am giving away (as I have to) and content with the data I prevented from going away. I one an Amazon Echo for its convenience but keep it on mute when it’s not being used.

Pi Hole’ trap
My trusty pi-hole keeping me safe from ads and trackers

A few months back I decided to dig a little deeper into the topic and read a few books to see what else I can do and more importantly to seek validation. I started with an innocuous little book called Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport which talked about how today we have moved from using technology as enablers to achieve our goals and make it work for you to people who are addicted to the technology itself. It talks about how we are losing a lot of our lives, qualitatively, by endlessly scrolling on social media apps and checking WhatsApp messages again and again. This book highlighted something that we all know but refuse to acknowledge. Almost all of us know that we use our mobile phones a lot more than we actually need to. Anytime we are idle, even for a moment, our hands reach to our phones to find something to “do”. We start getting anxious if our phone buzzes because of any notification and we do not check it immediately. It was a pretty tame book which re-affirmed most of the believes I already held, providing me with positive reinforcement. I still had a few had tech/phone habits lingering around which this book helped me get rid of. Mostly. Now, this was just the start. I started reading more and more about the legit harms that tech today is causing to us as a society as well as individuals. Some of these books like “Glow Kids” by Nicholas Kardaras are really well researched and backed by scientific studies which make the findings from these books even more alarming. This is not a review of these books so I will not go into much details but where are a few quick points

  • The correct number of hours for which a toddler can be exposed to screens (TV/Games/Mobiles) is ZERO.
  • Stimulating glowing screens trigger the release of dopamine in our brain’s pleasure centers in a capacity equivalent to sex.
  • Brain imaging studies have shown that excessive screen exposure can neurologically damage a child’s brain in the same way COCAINE ADDICTION does.
  • a growing mountain of clinical research correlates screen tech with disorders like ADHD, addiction, anxiety, depression, increased aggression, and even psychosis
  • There is absolutely no conclusive proof that introducing tech in education has any significant benefit for a student in terms of cognition or better learning. (Looking at you Byju’s)
Screen Addiction

I will try to list as many resources as possible at the end of this post. I recommend that you read those even if you do not have kids. For your own sake.

So. Here I was. With my entire mindset shattered making me question every single thing that I did as a father thinking it was good for Meera. Was I deliberately harming her all the while assuming that she was learning and growing? The signs were all there. The aggression, the glazed unblinking eyes when she was fully immersed in her videos, her trying to avoid taking a nap to maximize the screen time. I just failed to recognize the severity of the situation. I do not know if I had ever had such a strong reality check in my life. I decided to wean Meera off screens.

Well, that’s easier said than done. It is hard to get adults, people whose brains are fully developed and who understand that they are engaged in self-harming behavior, to recognize and quit such behavior. Screen Addiction is still an addiction. An important takeaway from the “Digital Minimalism” book was that you can only truly get rid of any undesirable behavior by replacing it with something else, preferably something that adds value to our lives. This is how I got rid, mostly, of my addiction to Reddit. I replaced it with Origami. Every time I have a few spare moments and have an urge to quickly check Reddit for the latest memes, I take a piece of Origami paper- which I have strategically placed all over the house and make a crane. It has worked for me not just as a diversion tactic but also I find the act of making these cranes a calming experience. Now I do not expect Meera to be able to start building paper cranes whenever she feels the craving for Pappy (That’s what she calls Peppa Pig). She clearly lacks the dexterity to do so. So now the challenge was to find activities that could replace TV time for her.

There is only one answer to that question. The answer that every parent knows and which kind of is the reason of this addictive problem existing in the first place. It is so basic that if you have not guessed it by now or don’t already know it - you will feel that I am kidding when I share this with you. The answer is - Whatever time Meera would have spent watching TV, she now spends it with us. She gets our undivided attention during the day which we had otherwise traded for Youtube time. That’s it. This is the answer.

Now, this looks simple but it is not. Well, it is simple but really hard to implement. No parent, at least not all, would willing to put their kids in front of a TV or a mobile phone knowing well that this activity does have harmful effects. They might not know the full extent or the severity of the harm but we all know that watching TV for prolonged periods is harmful to us. Yet there are things to be done and responsibilities to be taken care of. The house needs to be cleaned and food needs to be prepared. There are zoom calls that need to be attended in these pandemic induced remote working times. Forget leisure activities, tasks need to be done to keep the household from simply falling apart. Sometimes all you want to do is eat a meal in peace. Handing the phone to the child so that they get engaged in a game or a youtube song sometimes seems justified. It becomes more and more useful as we break into nuclear families where screens are needed to fill the entertainment and engagement void that used to be taken care of by grandparents. Behind every screen-addicted child stand parents who don’t really intend malice but are forced to some extent to surrender their kids to the screens.

But this was the only way. Things needed to change and that change needed to be permanent. This is what my day typically looks like. Meera would wake up somewhere around 7 am and then would be with me until at least 10 until my workday starts and I prepare for the first call of the day. In this time we would have played a lot, read a lot of books (more on this later), and gone out for a quick milk run. She gets the undivided attention of at least one parent at any given waking hour. And when I say undivided I mean undivided. You cannot expect the child to be sufficiently engaged if you are half-assing the activity scrolling on your phone. It would tantamount to cheating considering how she is not allowed to watch TV but you are allowed to scroll randomly on your phone screen all day. Fortunately for me, I had dropped my phone addiction much before I started this activity with Meera but I am sure this is going to be the biggest hurdle for most of the parents who try this. We are ADDICTED to our phones. All of us have developed anxiety and thaasophobia (fear of getting bored/idleness) to some extent and we get fidgety and uneasy when we are left alone without our phones for even 2 minutes. We know well that there is nothing new on the apps that we checked just 2 minutes ago yet like junkies we are pulled towards our addictions. Let me be very clear. Expecting the child to play on their own while you play with your phone is not going to work. Children know when you are distracted and they will then act accordingly. They will make you come to a point where you will have to switch on the TV for them. So learn to be fully engaged. Once I am done with the initial calls I take over again while my wife takes care of her tasks. Meera sits with me as we read books and play with colors all the while I keep trying to work. There are so many calls that I have taken with Meera in my lap that most of my teammates have now accepted her as a part of the team only. Sure, not the most efficient way but it needs to be done. I purposefully plan my day that most of the critical tasks or calls happen when Meera is taking a nap. Post nap, unless there is something really important during which my wife takes care of her, Meera is with me till be go to bed at night. We try to watch as little TV as possible because the idea was not to keep her away from some specific content but screen entirely. I am sure it must read very messy and unmanageable and I won’t claim that it isn’t but the process gets better, easier, and rewarding after some time.

Because of this process, I can say without a doubt, the bond that I have with my daughter today is qualitatively much better than what it would have been conventionally. I owe some part of it to the COVID related remote working situation which in the first place has given me this opportunity. I am certain weaning Meera off screens would not have been possible if I was still going to work and it was all up to my wife to take care of the child as well as the household without using the aid of Baby Shark. I have been able to spend these formative years of her life with her as she develops a personality, recognizes the concept of ‘self’ and ‘me’. I would not trade this time for anything else (maybe people not dying of COVID but you understand what I mean). It demanded a little sacrifice and some changes in my life but it was totally worth it. I wake up early (4.30 am) daily to make sure that I have a few hours of “me time” before Meera wakes up. I have been able to introduce exercise back into my life because of this. I am running three days a week now. I am able to make time for writing. As a matter of fact, it is 5.23 am as I write this post. I watch one movie, just one, every Sunday in the afternoon when Meera is taking a nap. This forces me to be really particular about choosing the right movie. I am currently on a path to watch the most beautifully made, visually appealing movies. Over the past few weeks, I have watched some of the best movies I watched in my entire life. The last movie I watched was Her. Absolutely amazing piece of work. I do not watch any TV series these days unless something exceptionally good comes out which is then watched 1 episode a day, a rule that is applied strictly. I am not able to read as much as I would want to which is a real bummer. Just to be clear I am reading a lot but those are all the books Meera wants me to read to her. Prioritization of things is no longer just a good to have but rather a survival skill. I need to be sure of myself about the tasks I pick up for the mornings or the movie I pick up for Sundays. I will not lie - it is challenging and would be even more for anyone who was not already on the path of quitting most digital distractions already. It would be really hard to wean your child off the TV if you yourself start craving it. But I can tell you one thing which I know for sure.

It works and it is all worth it.

Meera has not actively watched her Youtube videos for the past 2 months. The same videos which she would watch for many hours per day on TV and then on the phone, the same videos she would vocally demand to be put on when the cravings began. We have been successful in keeping her distracted so well that her demands for “TB! TB!” are now fully gone. And during this time I too have experienced how this is truly like an addiction. Even though it has been more than a couple of months since she last watched a Youtube video, she still is able to recognize the Youtube app icon (which she calls Pappy) and starts demanding for it to be played if she sees the icon. Considering she is the age where kids have such short attention spans that they will even forget their father if they don’t meet him for a long time that little red icon has already rewired my daughter’s brain and made her addicted to it. I can see behavioral changes in her already because of this TV abstinence. She is much less aggressive than before, much more interested in other activities, especially books, sleeps much better, and is a lot more active than what she was a couple of months ago. All of these improvements are totally worth my sitting with her idle, well dancing actually, after our dinner before we go to bed. We are asleep by 10 am so we are all getting adequate sleep as well.

If you have read this far, I am sure you too want to get rid of a similar habit of your kids. And it’s natural that whatever I have mentioned above seems daunting. But it is entirely manageable. This is a process that’s not just good for the child but also for you. You can use this opportunity to get rid of any old habit which you have always wanted to kick. I know for a fact that most of us feel that we spend way too much time on Social Media or Youtube or similar that we would ideally want to but we have not been able to do anything about it. This is the time to kick that habit. You will feel withdrawal for a few days and you might even relapse into going back to endlessly scrolling on Instagram but if you persevere you will soon realize that you don’t really need those distractions.

Screen Addiction

Start using the word ‘Addiction’. If you think that calling what is happening to you and your child an addiction would be hyperbolic or exaggerating than you would be wrong. It is an addiction that is now even acknowledged by the medical community. And calling it addiction will keep reminding you of the severity of the situation and keep you on your toes.

Just in case you have any confusion, we are not cutting away screens and entertainment entirely and absolutely from your lives. It would be really stupid of me to ask you to entirely cut off screens and TV from your lives as that would simply be unsustainable. Even if you and I manage to do it, the kid will eventually go out and see computers at the school and TVs at their cousin’s places. The idea is not the old school parenting style of trying to keep the children away from such distractions by never exposing them to TV or mobiles but rather to teach them how to use these tools properly and effectively. Meera is clearly too young to understand all this now so abstinence and extreme moderation are the keys but as she grows older I will be teaching her why we are doing this. Complete abstinence is still not possible or recommended. So you need to be careful about choosing what you guys watch together. Meera and I like to watch “Our Planet” and “Planet Earth” and Jurassic Park/World movies on our big TV and get excited about the animals and fish. Again, not putting her in front of the TV and going off to do your thing. Actively watching it with her. Mobile phone usage for Meera is strictly restricted to video calls with grandparents. It might seem really hard if your kid is already addicted to mobile phones but I am sure it’s just a matter of time and sufficient distraction and they too can kick their mobile habit.

Meera, actually all our children, exist because we wanted them in our lives. Add to that the fact that she, for a very long time, will lack the mental capacity to make the right decision for herself. It becomes my responsibility today to ensure that she gets the opportunity to grow up into a stable, balanced, and socially adept individual and not an anxious, socially awkward screen addict. I would never want her to look back and have any regret about how her parents did not act on time and let her become an addict.

Read Books

Also, we haven’t abandoned ‘Baby Shark’ entirely. The hold of that song is way too strong. We still get Aunty Alexa to play that song for us on our Echo device so that we can dance to the same. You too can try to switch to audio-only mode.

The next challenge for me right now is to tackle schooling. If the world was not COVID ridden, she would have started going to a Pre-School by now. That is clearly not happening. Most of the pre-schools have started online classes - whatever that means. But that goes entirely against my no screens policy for her. I am currently in the process of researching more on this. The situation is bleak but I want to weigh all my options before I commit to anything.

Recommended Reads: There are plenty of great books that you can read about the topics we discussed in this piece but here are a few that I have read and recommend.

Digital Minimalism - Good starting point for anyone who wants to shed their Social Media, Texting, or similar addictions.

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe - Written by someone who was once an advisor to Mark Zuckerburg. Read it to see how truly harmful Facebook is to you personally as well as to your country. Any country.

Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids - and How to Break the Trance - A must-read book specifically discussing the harmful effects of screens on children.

The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains - The title says it all.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked - Really insightful and simple books about how games, apps, and businesses keep us addicted to their offerings.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy - This is a pretty complex read that is worth the effort. Not technical but a good read none the less.

Note - All links are affiliate links. If you want book recommendations for your kids, Meera might have a few good ones to share.

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I have helped many startups in building their products and I would be happy to have a chat with you about your idea. Catch me on twitter at @akhilrex