Debate: DVD Players in Cars

Is a backseat video player a blessing or a curse for long road trips? Two travelers weigh the pros and cons.

Josh Sens

BLESSING Scream until daddy stops the car?

Not my kids, and not this daddy.

Not as long as we’ve got a backseat DVD player.

I know what you’re thinking. But before you report me to Child Protective Services, please understand: I’m not the kind of parent who uses Looney Tunes as a tranquilizer. I need good reason to plunk my kids in front of moving pictures. When I’m driving, I have two: my sanity and everybody’s safety. They’re more closely related than you might think.

Earlier this year, a study by the UK-based Transport Research Laboratory confirmed my suspicions when it concluded that unruly kids in cars present a real and present danger. When backseat uprisings were under way, drivers in the study reacted 13 percent more slowly than their undistracted counterparts; brake slamming nearly doubled; stress levels jumped by a third. Bottom line: Screaming kids aren’t as bad as cell phones, but the nature of their influence on motorists is pretty much the same.

I know what you’re thinking. Can’t your kids entertain themselves? Of course they can. But on long road trips, I Spy and 20 Questions only go so far. And nothing will put you in need of a drink like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” When the little ones tire of the fun and games, I pull over and press play.

I don’t put on just anything. The world is filled with educational programming, from Sesame Street to nature shows. And which is more edifying for a child: learning, say, about the Amazon, or counting Buicks on the interstate?

And if the video doesn’t impart deep life lessons, frankly, I don’t fret. In an ideal world, every road trip would be educational. The car, however, is not a classroom. When I’m behind the wheel, my top priority is peace, not profundity.

Like the horn and the gas pedal, a DVD player is a valuable tool when used with discretion. I switch it off and go back to being a more active parent after we’ve arrived, safe and sound (and perhaps soundless).

Bonnie Wach

CURSE Let’s be clear: I am not one of those holier-than-thou parents who religiously shuns the call of the Golden Arches, confiscates Game Boy devices on airplanes, and has never let her son stay up late in a hotel room watching SpongeBob SquarePants.

But I believe some rituals are sacred, and so the in-car DVD player on family road trips is where I pull the plug. Call me a Luddite, but I don’t think my child’s most vivid memories of driving through groves filled with Olympian-size redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants should be of Percy Jackson whacking the heads off a bunch of computer-generated giants.

There are also risks to consider: Numerous studies over the last three decades have linked excessive screen time with everything from ADHD and childhood obesity to aggressive behavior, delayed language development, and poor academic performance. These risks are magnified when you take into account Nielsen Company figures that have kids today watching as much as 32 hours of TV a week.

For me, though, the biggest tragedy of the traveling boob tube are the rites of passage we’d miss—Mad Libs and billboard alphabet, noting a cloud that looks just like a Tyrannosaurus rex, my son laughing himself silly making up endless “Why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes.

More important, those long, uninterrupted stretches of asphalt afford priceless opportunities for family bonding that we don’t often get in our overscheduled daily lives.

If not for the six-plus hours trapped in the backseat on our treks to the in-laws, for instance, I might never have learned that my son wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up. That he prefers mountains to beaches. That raindrops on a car window look like a thousand little exclamation points.

Sure, the DVD player may take the boredom out of road travel for kids, but for parents, boredom has its benefits.

This article was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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