Last spring, as part of a discussion series at my daughters’ school, I went to a forum on screen time. It turned out to be centered on the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s Screen-Free Week, which I’d never heard of. I decided to accept the challenge on behalf of my family.
We were fairly screen-lite already at that point. We don't watch a lot of TV to begin with – my husband watches the Red Sox, and we love Mad Men, but that’s pretty much it - so turning off the TV wasn't hard. It was more difficult for the kids to cut out Rainbow Fairies and Super Why games on the computer, and for me to leave my iPhone in a different room. But we did it - with practically no complaining. Involving the kids in the decision making process was key – we had a list of screen-free week activities from CCFC, and the girls picked what they’d like to do (treasure hunts topped the list, along with making a family tree – who knew?).
Having a stash of activities ready to whip out when they asked for a computer game came in handy. Legos, play-dough, art projects, new library books and cooking are all winners with my girls and took their minds off of the computer. Explaining the whole thing helped, too – we talked about why we were doing Screen Free Week, how screens affected their brains, and all the other fun things we could do instead.
Katherine, our older daughter, who is a big rule-follower, refused to go into the room where her grandfather was watching the news one night when we were at their house. “But there’s a screen in there!” she said, horrified.
Sophie, our younger daughter, who has a slightly addictive personality, was a little more aware of what she was missing. At one point she asked, plaintively, "is it Screen-Free Week everywhere?"
Personally, it felt great to shut the computer off each day before the girls came home from school, and leave my iPhone in a different room. As it turns out, Facebook really isn’t that important! A big lesson for me – Screen-Free week wasn’t just for the kids.
A year later, we’re still essentially screen free. Sometimes I cave and sit them in front of a movie, or let them spend an hour playing on pbskids.org. It doesn’t pay, though – they’re always more hyper and less well-behaved after their screen time.
Last month, I brought the girls with me to the doctor’s office and left them in the reception area while I went to my appointment. When the doctor realized I’d left them in the waiting room, she said “I should really go check on your kids.” She was back in a flash, amazed that they were playing an imaginary game, completely absorbed.
“They must not watch TV,” she said.
Alison Mitchell lives in Somerville, MA with her husband and two daughters.