Screen-Free Week: 5 Reasons to Say No

Photo courtesy of S. Cook.

Every year, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood hosts a Screen-Free Week, and every year I roll my eyes. This year, it’s May 4-10. This is not the first time a GeekMom has spoken up about this “event,” and I suspect it will not be the last.

The website says that “children and families will rediscover the joys of life beyond the screen. Unplug from digital entertainment and spend your free time playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring, and connecting with family and  friends.” The idea that these values and using media are mutually exclusive, as well as the clear judgement about what is more valuable, is misguided and counter-productive. Here are five reasons to say no:

1. It’s easier to make a habit than break one, and even then it takes longer than a week.

Most of the emphasis of Screen-Free Week is on breaking what parents perceive as bad screen habits. But science has shown that it takes an average of 66 days to integrate a new behavior. If parents really want to build better media habits, they would be better off looking at it as a process rather than an event. In addition, looking at forming a new habit around screen time in a positive way such as making room for and participating in other activities, rather than a rejection of using technology as valuable way to spend time, is more likely to create long-term balance.

2. Screen-Free Week projects a value judgement that can be polarizing.

I don’t know who came up with the idea that by giving up screens for a week kids will rediscover the joys of “playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring, and connecting with family and friends,” but clearly it is someone who is either technologically illiterate or in the business of fear. Our house has plenty of screens and my children do all of these things, sometimes with the use of screens and sometimes without. In any given week, they have played with Legos, read a comic book, created a new piece of art, explored a new hiking trail near our house, and connected with their friends at the park. They have also used screen time playing video games, read reviews and articles on their favorite sites, created an entire city in Minecraft, explored the latest research on finding sunken ships in the ocean, and connected with their auntie living in Shanghai on Skype. All of these things have value and all of these interests feed each other. When you reject what they love, they may see it as a rejection of them, and then it becomes a battleground. Spending a week focused on breaking what you may see as limiting but your kids see as limitless may shut down the conversation before it even starts.

 3. Screen time should be part of a holistic lifestyle.

Technology is integrated into almost every facet of life. Approaching it as a tool, creating the understanding that we control technology instead of the other way around, and fostering a healthy relationship with screens is a far better use of our time than demonizing screen time. The earlier children can learn to create their own balance around technology, the more we parent them into a consistent and long-term view of a holistic lifestyle that embraces technology. We should be setting up a dynamic between screen time and kids that models self-regulation, healthy nutrition, exercise and sleep practice, and personal knowledge. Ripping the screens away for one week will do nothing towards this goal, nor will kids even consider the lesson attempted by adults who can’t even model and maintain a holistic lifestyle themselves.

4. For some kids, screen time is essential.

My friend has a son who is gifted and delightful and has a learning style that relies on screen time. In her own words:

“We have learned that my son’s very high IQ was hiding severe sensory processing issues. In uncovering those, his OT has helped us to see that tech in general and the computer specifically is his one ‘safe place.’ As she said, the world is unpredictable and feels like a sensory assault on him every day, all day. Being in public is hard. Being one of three noisy kids in a tiny house is hard. When he has stretched himself in that way, he needs to unwind, to decompress, and to be able to feel like there is a place where he understands the rules and can trust that they won’t be broken or bent (except by him, of course). His number one self-soothing method is creating mods in Minecraft. He is literally making a world of his own design. When he has ample self-directed time, he is ready for the challenge of engaging with the world. In the middle or end of it, he would ‘pop out’ and was so incredibly engaged, enthusiastic, kind, warm, thoughtful, and deeply connected. Pretty much the opposite of how he was ‘supposed’ to be. Screens don’t automatically create disconnection, but a disconnected kid would way rather engage with a screen than continue to feel disconnected from their parent.

He has also come to love and appreciate the natural world through technology. He actually told me as a toddler that he did not like animals or nature (guess what my priorities were/what I pushed?). He refused to go to the zoo or on hikes. For two parents who met working at REI, this was painful. But TV shows and video games brought him a new understanding and appreciation of the world, and he is now passionate about marine biology and animal rescue, and is the first one in the car to ask us all to stop and look at the beautiful scenery around us.

Technology, specifically screen media, is an absolutely vital resource for my son, who needs to learn and create and hack all day, every day. My single biggest regret as a parent is not looking deeper into my own fears sooner and opening my heart to my son’s innate passion and gift.”

Can you imagine what a Screen-Free Week would do to a child like this, especially one imposed by parents who have the power to overrule or parents who have not made this connection yet?

GeekMom Jackie uses a variety of apps for her daughter’s speech therapy. GeekMom Sophie uses games right now to support her son’s desire for better spelling. My son is watching a lot of anime right now to support learning Japanese, which is doing more for him than any language program. Does this screen time also get banned or not because they are considered “worthy” or “educational?” The judgement on what is “good” screen time and “bad” screen time is arbitrary and senseless. Which brings me to…

5. We need to stop using screens as a value judgement on others.

You know, kids are people, too. Whole little beings with values and interests of their own. We now live in a period dominated by technology and that is not going to go away. Neither are the tech passions and interests of our kids. The thing about kids is, they are more likely to do what we do, not what we say. Instead of imposing our judgements on what would be a valuable use of our children’s time, we should be modeling what we would like to see. We should be listening to them about what they love instead of shaming them into giving it up for a week. Instead of banning screen time, we should be helping them to recognize how their minds, bodies, and hearts feel during all their activities, including when they are using media. Think about something you are very passionate about and then imagine someone you love implying there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed based on that passion. That is how kids hear it.

Is programming a robot with an iPad more valuable than playing a video game? Many would say it is, except I could give you a different take. One of my sons loves Assassin’s Creed. Intrigued, I started playing it with him and saw him using superb logic and strategy to navigate the game. The different versions sparked an interest in history, which we began to explore online and through documentaries and museum visits. He also started to be interested in cosplay, learning to sew and make weaponry based on the characters. Finally, before this awesome video even came out, he initiated learning parkour. All of that from one game. Is a plumber more or less valuable than someone who designs websites? Both work, certainly, but we don’t judge the value of one person who works with their hands over the other who works with a computer. So why do we insist on judging play so harshly? Play is the work of the child, to quote Maria Montessori.

I don’t have to share every interest that my kids have, but if I have any expectation of them respecting my passions and those of others, I have to give them the same. This notion of “better” needs to go and be replaced with a healthy understanding of what is good for the person and the family. More or less screen time may be the answer, but that decision should be made out of knowledge, insight, and respect, not fear and pressure.

I suggest that instead of a Screen-Free Week, we hold a Screen-In Week. Let the kids choose all the media for the week and let the parents participate in whatever they choose. Talk about their choices, learn why they are passionate, connect those values to other activities to create balance, and model it yourself. And when the week is over, keep doing it because that is how we stay connected and one week is not enough. Not even close to enough.