I raised my sons without TV until they were ages nine and seven. As toddlers, I had seen how their behaviors changed so profoundly with even thirty minutes of screen time. And as fate would have it, during that time I had plowed into the research on the effects of too much screen time on early childhood development. WOW. Once I got wind of all the major negative impact on youngster’s behavior and self-concept, especially, I couldn’t in my integrity do anything else. They say knowledge is power. What this knowledge did for me is empower me to make an unpopular decision that as it turned out, was one of the better parenting decisions I ever made.
The compelling research even compelled me to change careers. That was in 1987.
Today, of course, if I suggest to parents to go screen free from birth through age 9, they look at me like I just floated down from some la-la land cloud with a mad glow in my eyes or stepped off a pioneer wagon offensively sweaty and dusty.
Well, Andy Crouch, a modern day dad, decided to go screen-free. He prohibited screens before the age of 10 for his kids, and now has a new book to share his family’s experiences with all of us. The F word comes up a lot—Flourishing—that’s what kids do when they get their developmental needs met—they flourish. Andy, former editor of Christianity Today, and now CEO of the John Templeton Foundation, knows flourishing when he sees it.
So do I—if I hadn’t seen it with my eyes, I may not still be spouting off whenever possible about the fantastic advantages of limiting or ditching devices whenever possible and replacing them with LIFE. But life is too complicated and screens are so easy, you say? Yes, that is very true. Yet, the irony, the tragic rub, is that the more ease of screen use, the less easy it will be to raise a cooperative, self-regulated, emotionally healthy, cognitively curious, creative child. You can count on it. (I offer parents a list of research and books, if you would like to understand for yourself the harm done to vulnerable brains, birth-age 18, with too much screen use. Just e-mail me! firstname.lastname@example.org)
This brings me to Screen-Free Week. Screen-Free Week frees up space and freshens up perspective. What a terrific opportunity to go-screen free and observe where the energy starts emerging in your home, car, even at the grocery store. Surprise! You can actually relate to your child because s/he will be more receptive to your relating.
Screen-Free Week isn’t about taking away devices. Rather, it’s about what capabilities and experiences we can discover, now that we are not distracted by our devices—reality comes into clearer focus and our kids’ engagement with that reality—the 3D version—brings calm, joy and, I do know, parental satisfaction as well.
However, can kids return from screen saturation in one week? Not usually.
That’s one major caveat I have about Screen-Free Week—it’s a terrific appetizer.
But what about the rest of the meal—the other 51 weeks of the year? Will Screen-Free Week make any significant positive changes in the long run?
I share this cautionary tale—another story from the long-ago device-dark ages:
Marie Winn, a mom, activist and prophetess of her time, wrote a seminal book in 1977, TV: The Plug in Drug, explaining the lure of television to capture children and families. In fact, in 1974 she had begun the First No-TV Week because of her research and major worries about the addictive qualities of TV. In the book she explained how parents, given $500 for un-plugging for a year could do it, but that after the TV-free year was over, the family went back to watching television—usually more often than they did before the No-TV experiment—hence the drug metaphor.
What this says about the lure of the screen is profound. Winn didn’t have the studies, the brain photos, the knowledge of neurochemistry—she just knew TV was a drug from what she saw. Today, hundreds of studies demonstrate: Screens are addictive, especially to vulnerable young brains and high-risk children and teens.
Addiction counselor Dr. Nicolas Kardaras referred to screens as “digital heroin” in an article based on his thought-provoking book, Glow Kids. (“That’s right your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs.”) Recently, Adam Alter provides a revealing look at “the rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked,” in his excellent new book, Irresistible.
It takes everyday vigilance and on-going education to make significant strides in escaping screen addiction—just like with drug-addiction, we know what the risks are for screen addiction. And importantly, we know one major preventative measure: Parents, who decide they are a media/digital literate family, will as Andy Crouch says, “put screens in their place.” That means rules, boundaries, limits around screens and interesting experiences in the real world combine for increased family aliveness and assurance of healthy development of children and teens.
Putting people before popular culture brings tangible new ways of living together. Lively conversations, fun family activities, even household chores can become important conduits to deepening relationships. With more space and time for family connectedness, kids learn where they belong —with us and not the industry/tech culture. That culture seeks to turn children into loyal, obedient consumers, out of touch with their personal agency and inherent creative spirits.
And since that culture is relentless, it means we have to be relentless also. Teaching children to use screens as tools for intentional purposes and making sure, each day, they aren’t tethered to someone else’s world is hard work, but necessary work, nonetheless.
As my new hero Andy Crouch says, “Our job as parents is to have the long view because children don’t.”
While Screen-Free Week can be a good beginning, it’s life beyond Screen-Free Week that will make the significant differences.
Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2017. All rights reserved.