Reducing Screen Time One Small Step at a Time

It came to my attention while listening to NPR that “Screen-free week” had come and gone in early May. The event, presented by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, is a “celebration where children, families, school, and communities spend seven days turning OFF digital entertainment and turning ON life!” (www.screenfree.org). Unplugging and spending more time outdoors. Enjoying time together as a family playing games or reading books. Connecting with family and friends. Those things all sound good, so at first I was disappointed to learn I’d missed it. I considered that my family could easily have its own screen-free week. But when I really started considering what that mean – SEVEN days without TV, iPad, computer, my iPhone for God’s sake! – I had a mini-panic attack.

I pictured day after day of my bored children whining “Play with meeee”; tantrums the size of tsunamis; trying to cook dinner while my two kids bickered and ran after each other through our very tiny kitchen; hearing that nagging voice in my head telling me it would be so much easier if I just put the TV on…

I understood immediately that no digital entertainment for a week would make my life so much harder. It meant that I would have to up my game, participating even more in play and interaction with my kids – frankly as a stay-at-home mom with two kids who’s trying to build her own business, I’m already ‘at capacity’ you know? The other option was to cut them off screen-time and leave them to their own devices. I pictured out-right rebellion at that. How would I endure their whining, bickering, and endless pleading for SEVEN days without losing my shit…..no doubt about it, a screen-free week was a daunting undertaking.

I understand what this campaign is trying to do in terms of raising our awareness about the time we spend in front of screens. It’s important to highlight all the valuable experiences and activities our children could be doing instead like playing, exploring, day-dreaming, reading, creating, and running around. I just know that for my family, a gentler introduction to reducing screen-time is necessary to help us all stick to it. I think most parents feel at least a little guilty or worry about the amount of time their kids spend in front of screens. Given that, I understand why many of us get defensive when the issue of “too much screen-time” comes up. I don’t want parents to feel any more guilt than they already do. A screen-free week is a great idea to get the message out there and start a community-wide conversation. This campaign will get vital information out to parents who need to understand the negative effects of overuse of screen technologies. Unfortunately, information and awareness alone don’t change habits.

To change my family’s habits, I have needed to take small steps and go slowly. I started by looking at the research and asking myself what was a safe and reasonable amount of screen time. My kids were watching about 40 – 60 minutes of cartoons a day, always in the late-afternoon while I was prepping dinner. I knew I needed this undisturbed time and was not prepared to give it up. I also feel like 60 minutes of TV a day is not damaging their developing brains, especially given the fact that the rest of their time is spent in pretty enriching activity. That said, I was feeling unsettled by their reliance on TV for entertainment. The fact that it had become this crutch for all of us was enough to give me pause. I asked myself what I wanted for my children. The answer was for them to know how to entertain themselves; to express their own thoughts and opinions; to make up their own stories and use their own imaginations. I had to confront the fact that this TV habit was not supporting the development of these qualities, nor was I. TV and I were taking turns entertaining my children, and so they had come to expect to be entertained all the time. This is where I saw a problem and wanted to make a change. 

Over the last couple of weeks, we have begun to shift away from using TV as entertainment by replacing it with activities that my children enjoy as much or more. For my girls, ages 3.5 and 6, art and reading have been the most successful (unfortunately I still can’t entice them to play in the back-yard). I do have to up my game in terms of providing the art materials and helping them get started, but little by little they are becoming more independent with their projects. I also have to participate in reading which I don’t always have time for while I’m making dinner. Finding engaging books on tape has helped, as well as providing many interesting picture books for them to just sit with and look at. I also started talking to them about why it is important to limit TV. Putting it in terms they can comprehend, I used the analogy of too much junk-food is bad for your body and too much TV is bad for your brain. Nearly every day they whine about being bored, but now I don’t try to fix that for them. I tell them, “Go sit on the coach and be bored for awhile. Your brain will think of something to do eventually”.

My kids now watch about 40 minutes of TV a day – that’s two 20 minute shows on Netflix. I’ve set this two-show limit in my mind but I don’t tell them it’s a rule. I’ve found it is better to entice them away from the TV with an activity they love, rather than set a hard and fast limit. Before putting the show on, I’ll prepare them by saying, “After your show, you could do some art and make whatever you want”. They see me loading up the table with glue, paper, jewels, buttons, ribbon – and it sits there like a glittery pile of gold waiting for them. Sometimes they are thinking about what they want to make while the TV is on. There have even been times when they wandered away from the TV mid-show and started making it! What I want parents to realize is that even small efforts to reduce screen time can initiate positive changes. You don’t have to feel like it is all or nothing. You can find the path that works for your family and start your journey there. I am thrilled that my children are slowly becoming more self-directed as they discover how to entertain themselves. I have seized on this momentum by praising and encouraging their efforts. Who knows, we might even be ready to participate in the next screen-free week. I’ll need to work on my iPhone habit first though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s