As seen on Good Morning America: How much screentime IS too much? This is one of the hot button question with families today. Maybe what you need is to do The Newest Diet, a Digital Fast.
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I remember the first time my husband and I successfully had a dinner out of the house with our 3-year-old son in peace and quiet.
Once he had finished his last chicken nugget, we slid him a smartphone, clicked on his favorite cartoon, and then enjoyed dinner, at our own pace, and without wondering if our young son was bugging everyone else around us.
My smartphone was now even smarter than before; it was now my ticket to getting things done like doctor’s appointments, long hauls in the car, and runs to the grocery store, with a toddler in tow.
Fast forward several years, now with two kids and managing my own PR / social media business, there wasn’t just a few smartphones in the shuffle, but a couple of handheld gaming devices, an at home game console, a few tablets and that’s not counting the number of laptops.
Considering both my line of work and my husband’s, we were big consumers of technology and it only seemed right that so were our kids. Besides, their schools were using them daily. And if we were constantly checking our phones or laying around with our laptops, why shouldn’t our kids.
But then one day I realized that my kids weren’t going outside to play. There were no playdates. They weren’t in their playroom playing with any of the many toys on the shelves. And forget board games; they were literally still sealed in cellophane because they had never been opened.
All my 8-year-old and 5-year-old kids wanted to do was play on a device. Anytime, anywhere.
So began my quest to understand the effects of screentime (especially beyond the TV) on kids. Considering the age of technology at your fingertips is fairly new, the research is fairly new as well, but the findings weren’t positive either: Too much screentime isn’t healthy, for them or for me. Research showed that kids lack of social skills, concentration, and even ADHD issues were being traced to too much screentime.
And coincidentally those problems were some of the problems our kids were having at school.
I started sharing my frustration and concern with my friends and asking how much time “screentime” their kids were getting.
Each and everytime I brought it up, I was met with the same response, “yes, mine are always on something, but what do we do?” Our parents didn’t have this conundrum, but my age of parenting did. As adults we are now tethered to our own smartphone to do our jobs, order dinner, and sneak a peek in on friends on social media 24/7, why would we want to say no to the one thing that seemed to make life so much easier for all of us.
So when the opportunity to work on a project with ABC on screentime effects and the new age of Digital Addiction, I was all in. Introducing us to Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley and her book, The proposal was clear: the kids would go on a four-week digital fast and get rid of all screentime except for a few hours of TV with programming modifications. (If you want to learn about the effects of screens on our brains and our health, you should read this book.)
Starting the Digital Fast
Of course, that wasn’t near as easy as it seemed. There would be some planning to give the kids other things to do and also give me other options to give them: board games, books, craft time, playing outside, whatever it took. Our time as parents on screens would also be greatly modified considering we couldn’t just bust out our smartphones at a restaurant. We had to show by example that during this fast, we were going to spend time doing other things.
And of course, there was telling the kids that they we were taking away their devices for a month and then lock them up (and in our case away from the house.) I think that was the part I dreaded most. Were they going to hate me? Was I going to hate me that I didn’t have these tools at my disposal?
What Happened During the Digital Fast
But you know what? It wasn’t that hard – at least not from the kids point of view. The kids didn’t throw the fits that I had anticipated. After we laid out the rules, they understood and they began asking to go play outside.
They rode their bikes. We took walks. We played board games. We talked. We ate dinner around the table (both at home and at restaurants) and visited about our day. And at doctor’s appointments, I busted out the colors and the books. To fill up our time after homework and on the weekends, we enrolled in jiu-jistu to give them a new activity (and a new attitude too!)
AND since I wasn’t on a device when I was with them, I started to enjoy things more too. Our time together wasn’t spent me on the phone or on my computer, but doing family things. I was enjoying being in the moment instead of trying to multitask and do more all the time. I wasn’t on social media all the time trying to keep up with the “Jones.” We were just being together and it felt good.
I admit it wasn’t near as hard on them as it was on us at first. The change was something I learned I needed maybe more than they did. And I began to feel the effects. I was happier, they were happier.
I realized that the devices had no longer been the tool I thought they were, but a crutch for me as a parent to not be present. And wasn’t that the whole point of being one?
As for the kids, because they were playing and having more family time, they seemed to be happier. And their behavior, while not perfect, seemed to be a little more manageable, especially because me knowing what was happening or bothering them, instead of being on my smartphone allowed me to handle it before it got out of hand.
And even asked by the ABC crew if they were happier, they said yes.
After the Digital Fast
So did anything change? Yes. Things got better for all of us. And they continue to as well. While we have officially finished the fast, the screens haven’t been reintroduced. We haven’t needed to add them back into our routine so I haven’t put them out to remind them. They’re still tucked away, out of sight, out of mind. I know as a parent I can’t keep them away from them forever and I don’t plan to either, but I just don’t think it needs to replace the most important part of being a family and having me be a parent. And believe me, I love my smartphone, but I know we all could use a lesson on living in a world of technology. Even though I work in social media it doesn’t mean that it’s the always the best way to communicate. You can’t replace communicating and engaging with people as people, face to face, especially the ones you love most, with a device.
Do yourself a favor and do a little digital fast of your own.
Have you had an issue with screentime with your kids? Do you think your family needs a digital fast?