Last week I promised to give an update on our “screen-free” week. Since yesterday was the 150th birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I thought I’d fill you in on our week of “roughing-it.” I had visions of “Pa” (Nate) getting out his accordion or banjo (he doesn’t play the fiddle) while we warmed ourselves around the fire. That may not have happened, but the week did include more dancing than usual!
I learned from surfing the internet that screen-time is bad. Really bad. It contributes to reduced attention span, poor sleep, anti-social behaviors, and even hinders brain development.
Pssht,I thought. Those warnings are for deadbeat parents who let their kids spend entire evenings playing violent video games or looking at porn. My little angels have great attention spans, are very social, and sleep great! Besides, I reasoned. I work hard all day, and I deserve a break. I’m not a helicopter mom needing to suffocate my children with “enriching” activities. A little veg-out time won’t kill them.
Fortunately, our kids’ screen time isn’t normally out-of-control as they spend much of the week at grandmas’ houses and daycare while I indulge in company-sponsored screen time.
But things went a little overboard a couple of weeks ago. The kids logged a lot of screen-time hours for several reasons: a “movie day” at daycare, Nate watching (not babysitting!) the kids while I picked up a few waitressing shifts, and late winter cabin fever. The effects were dramatic enough to get this Lassez-Faire (read: LAZY) mom’s attention. It wasn’t any specific intellectual deficits that caught my attention. It was simply that my kids became BRATS.
It dawned on me that while screen time was meant to give Mommy (and other caretakers) a little sanity, that master plan was backfiring...big time. In the course of the week their behavior took a nosedive.
So, I made a plan for screen-free week. The kids would get no TV, phone or I-Pad time for an entire week, and Nate and I wouldn’t look at our phones while with the kids. Because I anticipated withdrawal whines, I promised that we’d do “something special” over the weekend as a reward.
Besides the scholarly evidence (which let’s face it, is compelling, but not enough to kick the habit), here is my theory on why screen-time negatively affects behavior:
1. It hampers their imagination
While watching Surprise Eggs on Youtube (seriously, how are those interesting?!), the kids’ brains seem to go into an entirely passive mode. Once videos are over, they lack the imagination to switch gears and engage in play. Contrastingly, after the first day of our experiment I don’t think I heard “I’m bored” at all!
2. It’s bad for self-control
At 2, it takes Vic a lot of self-control to take turns with 3-year-old Lou, who in turn requires a lot of self-control to resist clocking him in the nose when he destroys her Magnatile Masterpiece. Their brains need to be at the top of their games to play well together, and screen-time hinders this. Over the course of last week, while there were definitely still disagreements, they didn’t devolve into physical violence. In fact, I don’t think I gave any time-outs the whole week!
3. It reduces parental attention and affection
In children (and let’s be honest, adults, too) acting-out is often just a cry for attention. I found that when we shut off the screens, those quiet moments which I had been using to catch up on my Facebook feed were now used for snuggling with a book or just talking. By the end of the week, I felt much closer to my children, and their behavior towards me and each other was much more loving.
4. It’s addictive for kids and parents, and withdrawal causes misbehavior
While the bulk of the week went well, the first day was hard. Louisa in particular whined with the withdrawals. As parents, even if you’re well-intentioned about time-limits, it can be so easy to just leave the screens on to buy ourselves a little more cooking/cleaning/work/etc. time and to avoid the inevitable meltdowns. The cold-turkey week was a great way to detox ourselves, and their behavior and our connections improved far beyond just detoxing that bad week before.
Now that we’re done with detox week, though, I’m somewhat at a loss as to how to avoid going back to where we were. I’m realistic that we’re an integrated modern family with technology all around us. We’re not going to give up the screens altogether. Besides, doesn’t everyone remember this study that found “Sesame Street” to be just as good as pre-school?
So on Monday I let Lou watch an episode of “Carebears” and Vic watch “Bob the Builder” while I made supper. To my chagrin, just that half-hour increment was enough to turn them back into monsters! I thought that more interactive PBS shows might be a less potent and more educational drug, so I tried that in small increments for the last couple days. Yet Nate remarked tonight that the kids are not behaving as well as they did last week. I’m not sure where to go from here? Any thoughts from the veteran parents out there, or are we just in a whole new frontier here in our Little House in the Frozen Tundra? (see what I did with the Laura Ingalls Wilder reference there?!)
(Before anyone feels defensive of their parenting, I completely realize that some kids are not negatively affected by screens to this degree. However, I myself can hardly hold a conversation with an interesting show on in the background or my phone in my hand, and the apples don’t fall far from this bloodshot-eye-strained tree (that would be me). Some kids are more triggered by lack of sleep, certain foods, overstimulation, etc. As parents it’s our job to recognize those triggers and help set limits while our children develop self-control.)