Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Screen-Free Week Reflections

Screen-Free Week and I have a tenuous relationship.  If you're not familiar with the week, it is during the last week of April every year, sponsored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and promoted by other lovely organizations like Center for a New American Dream and Simplicity Parenting.  I say we have a tenuous relationship because limited screen time is one (very important, I think) element of simple living that I have never really been able to get a grasp on.

We had a TV, VCR, and Nintendo (the original) in my house growing up, with fairly few restrictions on our viewing except for content (I remember that MTV and VH1 were blocked, and we weren't allowed to watch the Simpsons). In spite of the relative lack of limits on screen time itself, most of my childhood memories involve outdoor play, make-believe, reading, and riding bikes. I had a few shows that were my favorites (Garfield and Friends, My Little Pony, Reading Rainbow, the TGIF and Snick lineups, oh how I'm dating myself...), but I could watch one show or play one level of a video game and be done. Playing with toys or outdoors had much more of a draw for me, at least from what I remember.  As a teenager, I was obsessed with my couple of favorite shows and had to see them every week or record them (this was before Hulu, Netflix, episodes posted online, or even DVDs of whole TV shows).  Thinking back, my fixation with Lois and Clark or Mulder and Scully, characters who weren't real, was probably not terribly healthy.

Fast-forward to adulthood.  First as a college student (no TV unless my roommates had one), then a full-time volunteer living with other volunteers (a tiny old TV with no cable), then a newlywed (TV but still no cable), I made an effort to assess and reassess my TV consumption often and keep it limited. Now, as a parent of young children, I've gone back and forth over whether we should have a TV at all, where it should be in the house, and how we should use it. I admit to having used the TV as a babysitter, but I've also discovered some PBS shows that I think my son has genuinely learned from.

It's a tough line to walk for me, as I have a number of competing desires: I LIKE watching TV, especially movies; my husband likes TV, and it is something we have done together and from which we have lots of inside jokes. I also have two small children and I worry about TV's effects on their brain development/creativity/learning/morals, but at the same time, I need a shower and I need to work once in a while, and TV does hold my very active two-year-old's attention better than any other activity (which is quite scary). And yes, I do think TV has something to offer in terms of educational value (obviously not to the exclusion of actual human interaction). With those caveats in mind, I have always wanted to give Screen-Free Week a shot, which brings us to last week.

As it happened, I have to confess that it turned out to be "screen-free between the hours of 8 and 6, Monday through Friday" week, but in our current situation, this was all I could ask for. My parameters were: no TV during those hours, no blogs or Facebook for me, no online cartoons for my toddler; I only allowed myself to check email (I work from home, so can't be unreachable) and necessary sites (banks, Google maps, etc.). We were coming off of some screen-heavy weeks thanks to my heavy workload, so this was quite the change.

I expected my two-year-old to beg for Sesame Street, Dinosaur Train, and Daniel Tiger, but in fact, he barely seemed to care that the TV was off.  He still sang his songs from these shows (it's creepy how he remembers them), but he didn't ask to watch them, mostly because we got busy with other activities. With ideas from Joyful Play with Toddlers  from the library, we made Play-Dough porcupines and forests (with toothpicks), and tunnels, a play house, a sit-in airplane, and a play oven, all out of cardboard boxes. We read dozens of library books. I knitted; my son actually played with his toys and tried to show his baby sister how to play with his toys. We went to the park almost every day, and I got to talk to actual adults there. I didn't miss my blogs or Facebook (much), and my son wasn't begging me to watch his favorite videos or trying to type on the keyboard because I wasn't at the computer. In fact, I had a lot fewer discipline issues with him overall because I was actually physically and mentally present with him, rather than yelling corrections at him from across the room. I felt like a better parent, and I daresay he learned even more from me than from Sesame Street. It was also much easier to keep to a schedule, without the distractions of internet rabbit trails or one "quality" children's program after another. For that or some other reason, my son took naps four days in a row, for the first time in months.

During Screen-Free Week, my second cousin had a baby, and I didn't find out about it until days later because I wasn't on Facebook (I had to hear about it from my mom, who is on Facebook.). And you know what? No one noticed that I didn't comment on her cute baby photos. No one felt slighted, I didn't feel out of the loop (in fact, it was kind of freeing not to be involved in everyone's life all. the. time.). That baby was no less loved because I wasn't virtually "there" to take notice of him. Her baby wasn't less loved, but my babies were so much more loved due to my presence and attention to them.

Our TV probably isn't going into the dumpster or onto Craigslist anytime soon (much as I might enjoy that). But, I will say that the TV has naturally come on less and less often since Screen-Free Week. I am sticking to my policy of no TV during the daytime, and limiting my own computer use during the times of day when I am alone with my kids. This does require more work from me during this particular stage of parenting - I often need to redirect my two-year-old to new activities, or even create new activities for him.  I need to assess his mood and the situation to decide whether we need to start a new activity or get outside or go to the park.  But, I can see how this extra work early on in my children's lives will cultivate the springs of creativity that they will draw on later to keep themselves engaged. Even with just one week of screen-light, interaction-heavy time, I can see my son's attention span growing. And the bonus for me?  I'm feeling the creative juices flowing again as well, thinking about gardening and writing and knitting and sewing and drawing (I can't draw). Is that worth missing a few hours of TV or Facebook?  I'm thinking yes.

Did you participate in Screen-Free Week?  How do you and your family deal with screens in your home?

P.S. A book I found inspiring during the week was Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share Their Secrets by Barbara Brock.


  1. Hi there! We also did screen-free week, mostly. TV in our house=computer w/Hulu and Netflix subscriptions. I only did a mediocre job of staying off the internet when not necessary, and I watched TV two times, once because my husband was out of town and I wanted to, and once because he was home and we wanted to. My son's biggest screen engagement is with the iPad, so I just let the charge go out and didn't plug it back in. He played with it once or twice before it died, but also didn't seem to miss it at all. I am terrifically excited to check out the activity book you mentioned. I would love to have more craft and fun time going on between the two of us. But back to the point.

    In some ways, it was like a cheater screen-free week, because it turned out to be so, so busy that I wouldn't have had much time to watch, anyway. The cool thing was that since I had already planned to not watch, I didn't feel resentful that I was too busy to, which I think I would have, otherwise. I did discover, however, that there are screens in my son's life that I didn't take into account. I didn't realize how much he plays/asks to play with the car GPS and my cell phone. Obviously playing with those two is not an issue as far as leading a commercial-free childhood, but that's only one facet of the issue. I want him engaging with REAL things. Technology is real and important and not going away, etc., he needs to master it, but I want his small childhood to be more concerned with bugs and sticks and balls than icons and touch screens.

    I also felt creative juices flowing again - there are so many desirable things to knit and crochet and sew! But as yet I haven't made any time to do it. I think I told you that I have 30-40 mins of exercises to do every night as part of my physical therapy for my hips? If I didn't, I can explain elsewhere...but until that is resolved, I think TV might be a regular part of the nightly diet, because I can't do the exercises while reading and frankly, it's really, really nice to have something to distract me a little during them. We'll see. I definitely intend to keep my son's watching on a leash. I agree that there are awesome, lively, educational programs/apps/etc. out there and that a little bit of electronic distraction can be a life-saver. We'll probably start with timed iPad play, like 15 or 20 mins, and just try to keep it hidden so he can't independently find it and use it, and won't see it and ask for it when he might otherwise go find some toys or something.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Marta! You're right about the other screens... we don't have smart phones or tablets, but I didn't think about even the digital cameras, which my son wants to look at on an almost daily basis. When I run up against the "technology is not going away, so our kids need to learn it, like, NOW" crowd, I struggle with a justification for my stance of limiting technology. I think you hit the nail on the head that while technology isn't BAD, our kids need to be smelling dirt and feeling textures and all these things they can't do on a touch screen. I also worry about the addictive nature of the screen: if I can't draw myself away from a TV show or website, what makes me think my two-year-old has the self-control to say when enough is enough?

    Joyful Play with Toddlers is great; it is definitely aimed at younger toddlers, like 12-24-month-olds, but I found a lot of fun ideas to springboard from. I also meant to mention a locally-published book I read during the week called Living Outside the Box: TV-Free Families Share their Secrets, by Barbara Brock. I'll add a link to it in the post. This book is a unique take on TV-freedom in that it focuses on what families gain by getting rid of TV (and limiting screen use), rather than focusing on scary statistics about the dangers of TV.

    1. I like that you seem to consistently look for positives instead of negatives on this issue. It's not what you lose or fear, but what you gain or desire. Great!

      Just a quick addition to the addiction comment- yes, it's so, so real. I heard a thing on the radio about how to know when your child is vulnerable to a technology addiction- FB, or interactive video games, or whatever. If it's meeting all or a majority of these 7 needs that I can't remember, of course, but were things like social engagement, success, mental stimulation, etc., then your kid is likely to have a strong degree of emotional dependence. That IS one scary thing that I want to be aware of, because it's sort of sickening (in a makes-my-heart-sick sort of way) to see even now how my son throws stormy, violent fits when we take the iPad away. It's not REAL!!! I don't want him at 13 to be pouring his heart and soul and worship into not-real things because they push all his buttons at once. Anyway, it makes me a little crazy, sorry for the trip into the darkness. Here's to a summer of real things for our children!