At this writing, we are about halfway through the annual Screen Free Week, the brainchild of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), an advocacy group that tries to reduce the impact of advertising on kids.
I’m curious: Are you aware that this week is going on? Are your participating? I’ve talked to a lot of parents and kids over the past few days, and the best I’ve gotten is a vague notion that they heard something on the news about this. I haven’t talked to anyone who is participating. Ultimately, it’s not about going cold turkey on screen time for a week, it’s about managing the screens that fill our lives on an ongoing basis. I know that that’s at the heart of the CCFC’s ongoing efforts, particularly when our kids are bombarded with advertising messages constantly. (And have you heard? The NBA is even considering selling advertising space on the players’ jerseys! We’ll see where that goes.)
Screen time can be a serious problem. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated “8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.” And that data is from 2009, so the numbers are probably higher, since many of us, at least in New York, have grown accustomed to the sight of a baby in a stroller playing with/teething on an iPhone.
And it’s not like this is new. Even when TV was relatively new, there were warnings that it would rot our brains. When I was growing up, for many years we were not permitted to watch TV on school nights, with some exceptions. I got left out of conversations at school about some shows, but my family read aloud together or played games. It was a trade-off, and one I don’t regret.
As I read through all the suggestions on a wide variety of websites for what to do instead of watching screens this week, they all have one thing in common: Virtually every one encourages more interaction with the people around you. From toddlers to teenagers, it’s all about connecting to the people in the room with you. That takes more work than letting the kids go off in a corner and text or play games. It requires you as the adult to be present and engaged. Remember, it’s not just kids who are losing themselves in screens—they learn it from what they see around them. But it’s also important for kids because by interacting with family and others in person and in real time, they learn lessons in listening, conversation and social interaction that are critical skills for future success.
We’re never going to avoid screens or the information and entertainment they stream at us constantly. It seems to me that the challenge is not to forbid them, but to find things that you would actually prefer to do together as a family than each person withdraw into his or her personal screens.
Come to think of it, maybe going cold turkey for a week on screens isn’t such a bad idea. It may just be the shock you need to change some entrenched behavior. Don’t worry: No one’s going to take away your screens, but there’s so much more to the world, and amazing people right in front of you. Why would you want to miss out?