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Screen-free week: Simple swaps for switching off

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Screen-free week” can be a challenging exercise that provides a sense of accomplishment. A nationwide movement May 1–7, it’s a way to get people to unplug and rediscover the joys of life beyond the screen.

But to many families, it’s also a relief to return to a screen-filled lifestyle. In fact, it can be hard to imagine going without television or internet devices on a regular basis.

For some practical screen-time substitutions, take a glimpse at a day in the life of our (relatively) screen-free family:

Morning

Morning in our household consists of getting three children out the door to junior high and elementary school. I’m up at 5:30 am to snatch time to myself. By 6:30 am, my girls are up and getting dressed for school. A quick check of the weather forecast in the paper or on an iPod and wardrobes are selected. Within a half-hour, everyone gathers for breakfast.

We eat together most days (minus Dad, who usually arrives at work before we’re up). Over breakfast we review any activities for the day. Then I read the newspaper, my eldest occasionally looking over my shoulder at the sports news. Occasionally, we all discuss an interesting news report I’ve chosen to share with them.

Dr. Amy Nathanson, associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, points out the crucial nature of parents filtering the news for their children.

“Depending on their age and development, children simply aren’t ready to hear the kind of information news stories typically contain. In many cases, exposing children to news stories only results in them becoming frightened and without the abilities to effectively manage their fears.”

Developmental pediatrician Dr. Mark Bertin agrees.

“The news has become really disturbing. The images being shown and the information shared aren’t things many kids are ready to hear in that format.”

By 8 am, everyone is gone. I head to my office where I will work at my computer. The morning is otherwise screen-free.

Afternoon

Elementary school dismisses at 2:30 pm and my younger two arrive home shortly after. They empty their backpacks and scoot up to the kitchen counter for a snack. I stand and chat with them for a bit.

Soon my eldest returns from junior high and by then homework time is well under way. The television in our family room sits dark. Except for my teen listening to her iPod in her room and instruments being practiced, the house is still.

It’s 4 pm. One child reads on a couch while another plays with Lego bricks nearby. Even though the television is right there, they don’t ask to turn it on.

No television during playtime, as it turns out, is a good thing.

“Children’s play sessions are shorter and less sophisticated when background television is present compared to when it is not,” says Nathanson. “Because children learn a tremendous amount from playing, the detrimental effect of background television on children’s play is significant.”

Before I start dinner preparations, I urge my middle child into the kitchen to work on her birthday wish list. She has no ideas. It’s not that she’s an odd child with no desires. Nor are we indulgent parents, buying her everything she requests. Essentially, without television marketing to influence her, she lives relatively satisfied with what she has. The wish list grows slowly.

I move on to cooking dinner. Sometimes my children ask to play a video game together during the dead time before dinner. And often I allow them. Because it’s a limited time and I know exactly what they’ll be seeing on the television, I’m comfortable with it. And I’m not alone.

Lesley Wagner, a mother of three young children, also keeps her days relatively television free. But when it comes time to get dinner together, she admits she sometimes puts the television on.

“When my 4-year-old wakes up from his nap, we may watch TV while I’m making dinner. Maybe for 20 or 30 minutes.”

As Bertin notes, “Some screen time is a part of life. If children are watching a small amount, and we’re closely watching the content, they’ll be fine.”

The problem arises when it becomes a habit that takes over. Nathanson explains, “Parents may want to rethink their use of TV when they find they are continually turning to it to satisfy their own or their child’s needs.”

Evening

By 6 pm Dad comes home, and we sit down to dinner together. My husband takes this time to do his own catch-up with our girls. Soon our kitchen grows noisy with our girls’ rapid-fire interchange.

“When the TV is off during meal time, family members can tune into each other,” says Nathanson. “The reality is it’s difficult for anyone to ignore the images and sounds coming from a television. By turning the television off, parents and children can talk and really listen to each other.”

After dinner, we all clear the table. Then Dad and I retire to the couch where we catch up some more. In the kitchen the three girls tease each other and carry on loudly as they wash the dishes.

Once the dishes are done, our eldest returns to her homework. Sometimes the rest of us play a board or card game.

At 7 pm, the bedtime routine starts. Our youngest showers, while the others read. The family room is empty, so Dad sneaks in a quick video game. (He can’t help it.)

By 8:30 pm, the house is quiet. The girls have gone to bed. I read. Dad settles in with a puzzle. The television is off.

After catching up on Facebook (yes, we’re guilty of computer screen time more than anything), it is lights out for us. We both drift off easily, not wired by a fast-paced, late-night news program.

As you can see, we are not Luddites. Screen time does figure into our day in small amounts, and we’ve been intentional to constrain its limits.

Dr. Bertin sums it up well: “Recognize that media doesn’t have to happen to us. We can decide how to use media, even for our kids.”

It’s intentionality that makes the difference.

Lara Krupicka is a freelance writer who admits to enjoying one television show and plenty of games each week with her husband and three girls.

Tips for limiting your family’s screen time

• Model intentional viewing habits by turning the television on only for specific programs.

• Set and keep rules on how and what children will watch.

• Provide reasons for those rules and involve older children in deciding the rules.

• Don’t place televisions and computers in children’s rooms or other places where they can’t be easily monitored. Also consider limiting where tablets and laptops can be used.

For more information and ideas about screen-free week, see www.screenfree.org.

Updated 5:02 pm, July 9, 2018
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