Wellbeing

June 25, 2024

Screen Time: Here’s What Happened When I Took my Kids’ Screens (Part 2)

Writer Amy Dunn tells us that taking screens away marked her. "I watched my kids immediately become completely lost in their own imaginations for not just minutes, but hours and...

Before I tell you what happened when I took them away, let me give you some context into our screen use as a family. Picture a slow Saturday morning when my kids (generally the youngest two—8 and 5-year-old boys who share a room) wake up around 6:00 a.m. I try to make them stay in their room until 7:00 a.m., but let’s be honest, once they are up, there is no going back to sleep. In an effort to enjoy some quiet, my husband and I allow them to go watch TV. What kid doesn’t love some good Saturday morning cartoons? I sure did when I was their age. It was usually a couple of hours before we made them turn it off to really get started with our day. 

Fast forward to the afternoon, when, after entertaining them for the better part of the morning, we wanted a break and would, once again, let them watch their shows, resulting in a couple more hours. Then, what if we wanted a sweet family movie night? A couple more hours. I have never loved this arrangement, but with three busy, loud kiddos, didn’t I deserve a break? I always felt exhausted managing big (big) emotions, the constant sensory overload from the noise, and so much squabbling among the siblings. I felt like I needed screens for my own survival (never mind that previous generations raised kids without inordinate amounts of screen time).

I’m sure many of you can relate and won’t leave me hanging in these admissions I am less than proud of. I stop short of tallying the obvious hours we were averaging on every non-school day.

We don’t allow any personal screens for our boys (after negative experiences), with limited access for my daughter, and had previously taken away video games. They were just not a good fit for our family, to put it mildly.

Transitions off screen time were always hellacious (video games had been the worst offender). There was always whining, noncompliance, and grumpiness, which produced extra fussing and frustration from us parents. As much of a break as screen time gave us, it took back with a vengeance as soon as it was over.

A little backstory is that I have been on my own screen journey for a while now, trying to curb my own use as we begin to navigate these waters with my 11-year-old daughter. I realized I was giving her a standard that I was not holding myself to. Culturally, we have begun to rely on our phones for everything, not just an outlet for social media. We use it for grocery lists, communicating with people, making doctor appointments, taking pictures, and literally anything else you can imagine. As they like to tell us—there’s an app for that. So while we may not be scrolling social, it’s all the same to an onlooker who sees a head turned down to a phone.

I removed social media for a while to mitigate this pull and be a good example for my daughter, and while it did lessen my attachment for that specifically, the pull towards my phone didn’t lessen one bit. The need to tap the screen or check another app in moments of downtime remained. It pains me to think of passing this struggle down to my kids who developmentally don’t have the executive functioning abilities that I have. So this conundrum was brewing for a while and I am still working through my own paradoxes with screens.

What I witnessed when I took away screens marked me. I watched my kids immediately become completely lost in their own imaginations for not just minutes, but hours and hours. They began to make up games, play together more, quarrel and complain less, dial-in on difficult puzzles, pull out dust-covered board games, and become more independent of me in daily tasks. 

I also quickly realized how much they are capable of. One day last week, I was in the other room working (an additional miracle) and I heard them palling around in the kitchen. Even though I was interested to see where it would go, I actually didn’t investigate. To my great joy, they spent two hours creating a restaurant, complete with a hand-written menu, makeshift table, specific roles for each kid (cutest 5-year-old host, fantastic 8-year-old chef, and most capable 11-year-old restaurant manager and server) and cooked me an entire meal of eggs, sausage, fruit, toast, and a yogurt parfait…and then cleaned up after themselves. You could have cut my satisfaction with a fork (sorry, I had to). 

They are voraciously devouring books, checking out a ridiculous amount at the library and actually reading all of them. We came home from the library the other day and my big two read for three hours (the little guy gave it a good long go, as well!). How had I actually gotten this much rest for myself with reading? 

Honestly, I also have experienced some shame as a response to this: why would I not think my kids would respond this way? Every previous generation of kids has grown up with considerably less screen time and has had to occupy themselves (including myself!). Kids are quite literally hard-wired to play and learn from play. I began to be aware the issue stemmed from me—my own fear of not having the energy or mental bandwidth to entertain them. My own jarring reality was that I didn’t have to.

With all this said, removing screens hasn’t been a magic bullet for sibling fighting or disobedience, but what I have witnessed is the development of conflict resolution and a remarkable improvement in behavior overall. My life is easier! My house is startlingly more peaceful. We are witnessing what I firmly believe is a more appropriate level of these struggles. The removal of screens has shown me the distinct correlation between their behavior and their screen use. While I understand that my story is but one anecdote, growing research supports my personal experience.

Now instead of waking up to watch TV, they run to puzzles and books or play in their room with zero fuss. The transition was surprisingly easy, as well. In the past, the removal of video games and iPads was, by comparison, so much more difficult. The first couple of days were tough to hold my ground, but soon they asked less and less. They still occasionally ask for the TV and I do get the infamous accusations of being mean and not cool, but I can’t help smiling in those moments (which totally irritates them). They don’t realize how thankful they will be one day and I am ok with that delayed gratification. 

Every family is different, and screen tolerance varies by kid. Only your family can determine what screen boundaries work best. For us, removal versus limits has been the only way. 

Legalism against screens also seems slippery. I do not want to villainize screens in their eyes or create such a deprivation that they become sneaky and dishonest with them. We still have movie nights and our long-term rhythms are continuing to emerge and will have to be revisited over time. I don’t mind them watching screens at friends’ homes (and I trust the parents in those homes). 

However, I do believe that parents have begun to feel trapped in the screen cycle and don’t know how to break it. If you are feeling trapped, I want to encourage you to face this challenge head on. Millennials and later generations have become the unintentional, casual guinea pigs for the studies of screen time impact. With the results emerging as incredibly unfavorable, we have the ability to take this information and reverse the culture. I’d even go as far as to say that the overuse of screens is what is truly countercultural in the grand scheme of all generations, so we just need to swing the pendulum back. Be brave and remember that you, and (especially) your kids, were literally made for this. 

POSTSCRIPT 

Dear Reader, 

Here are a few additional thoughts from one parent/caregiver to another.

  • There are so many practical recommendations for reducing screen time. We have offered some suggestions, as well as additional resources at the end of each part in this blog series.
  • I have a child with ADHD. With professional medical counsel, medicinal intervention has been extraordinarily helpful for our family dynamic. It felt inauthentic not to include this and I think it serves a dual purpose to share: 1) to validate that your family will have unique experiences and responses to removing or reducing screens. Without medication, our house is much more chaotic—hence the screen use for mental relief. We get it. And you may feel yours would be ultra chaotic, too. But also screens (for us), come to find out, dramatically (negatively) impacted the ADHD behaviors even with the use of medication. So the complete removal of them has proven to be an extremely effective intervention combination for us. Without medication, we continue to have difficulty, even with the improvements. But removing them has furthered peace in our home, so it is just a big piece of our puzzle in the same way it is a piece of your puzzle. 2) Children are active and the need for relief is real. Sharing that we have been able to achieve something I did not think was possible, while doing something that is incredibly beneficial for my kids, I hope I can offer a bit of courage to you. And, should you need it, seek out resources to help work through challenging areas. 
  • My kids are on the younger side. It is still pretty easy to take charge. If your kids are older and already have established screen use habits, it will undoubtedly come with different challenges. But parents are rising to the occasion and becoming creative and vocal in their efforts. Just recently, Jessica Seinfeld gifted her youngest son a flip phone for his high school graduation in hopes he will turn in his smartphone. Here are some other celebrities that have been outspoken about their standards and beliefs around their children’s access to smartphones and social media: Drew Barrymore, Chip and Joanna Gaines, Jennifer Garner.
  • Over the years, we had already removed personal screens and made the decision to delay giving cell phones. I imagine this contributed to our smooth transition.
  • I didn’t have a big dramatic meeting with my kids about this. I’m not sure if this is right or wrong, but I felt like it was not the right move for my kids because, at their ages, I know they would have argued with me and they aren’t old enough to even really understand what they are arguing against. Also (unpopular opinion alert), they don’t have to have my full explanation. We are their parents and we know more than they do about this. It won’t make sense to them until years from now, so a logical discussion is not going to be productive for them. I address each TV ask independently, usually with some version of, “We aren’t watching TV for a long time.” When they inevitably ask why, I sometimes say, “We watched too much TV and our brains need a break.” I’m sure we will have more detailed discussions about this as time goes on. 
  • Thought: Let’s bring back the family phone—a.k.a. the landline. We are looking at this wireless version for our home so that my 11-year-old daughter can have some independence to communicate with her buddies without all the extras. 
  • Together we can make a difference for the future. Even if it is just your family, your family turns into generations. But can you imagine how much easier it would be if we were a part of a community that made similar decisions? 
Resources
The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt
Let it Grow.org, co-founded by Jonathan Haidt and Lenore Skenazy
GIRLS, founded by Freya India
How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price
Thrive Center

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