Lessons learned from a tech-free week
I have been thinking about my family’s relationship with screens a lot recently. I’ve beeen listening to Phillipa Perry’s book and the section on parents and screens has been haunting me. Googling the random questions that pop into my head is my favourite pastime, but what must my own personal experience of falling down rabbit holes look like to my children? I imagine it looks like screen obsession at best and neglect of their needs at worst.
I have always been mindful of the children’s screen usage. They were, until recently, limited to two hours of TV and/or video games aday. My eldest is not allowed to download any games with a PEGI rating above his age without first asking permission. I check in with all TV programmes to make sure the content is suitable for my youngest. I thought I was careful but also generous, and yet my children were still slightly obsessed with screens.
Obsession is probably the wrong word. The children were very aware of their alotted screen time. They tracked their usage and ensured they squeezed every last drop out of their alotted screen time with a precision a parent-teacher could only dream of – if only they were using this super power during maths!
But what I really wanted for them, was to be equally aware of whether they had fallen down their own rabbit hole of discovery that day or played outside in the fresh air and gotten sunshine on their skin or ate the rainbow and really felt satisfied. These are highly valued habits in our family and we surely discuss them often enough. I had always felt that the low value we place upon screen usage was obvious and yet somehow, somewhere along this journey, we were unconsciously encouraging this low value habit above the higher value habits and I did not know how to turn the ship around.
Was this because my husband and I so frequently had smart phones held just feet before our faces – whilst stirring a pot of pasta, walking from room to room, waiting for teeth to be brushed and bedtime stories to be picked? When I discussed this with my husband, he half-jokingly replied, “If you told them they were only allowed outside for a maximum of two hours a day, I guarantee you they would make sure they got all of their Outside Time for the day.”
That was it. The crux of my problem. I had gifted my children with an abundance mindset for creative expression (the shelves are heaving with art supplies), fresh air and exercise (the backdoor is always open), and eating good food (the snack box is always accessible and most of our meals are hot). But I had cursed them with a scarcity mindset for Screen Time and it had raised this habit to the forefront of their young minds.
On close examination, Screen Time isn’t all bad
I had to wonder if this scarcity mindset not only brought Screen Time to the forefront of their minds but also detracted from their ability to enjoy and appreciate the time they had.
I’ve always wanted to be one of those families who didn’t own a TV and didn’t miss it, but my husband values video games as down time. I’ve tried encouraging him to share our son’s interest in woodworking and our daughter’s interest in football, but what they usually share and enjoy most is an hour of gaming together. As long as tempers remain under control, it is a monumental exercise in communication and collaboration that I just could not engineer in any other way. And if I’m being honest, I am sometimes completely drawn in. Watching my husband play Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess was unbelievably distracting. I became absorbed in the story.
We also love Saturday afternoon movies with ice cream! We’ve discovered some amazing foreign animations with their own unique styles of art, plot and pacing. My youngest is also a very visual learner and YouTube can be a lifesaver when trying to demonstrate new concepts. My son and I really enjoy BBC history documentaries together and TedEd is always a fun place to stumble upon a subject you didn’t know you needed to know more about. So, the TV is here to stay.
But even as we modelled the value of screens as a tool to spend time together being absorbed in story or to enahnce learning, the children were still tracking how much screen time was left for their own individual interests. I had to wonder if this scarcity mindset not only brought Screen Time to the forefront of their minds but also detracted from their ability to enjoy and appreciate the time they had.
Now, I am an ALL or NOTHING person. And I wanted to give us space to further explore and unpick our scarcity mindest about screens. So, I enforced a tech-fast for the whole family for one whole week – like ya do. This meant no TV, video games, Google, emails, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or online shopping. I chose NOTHING over ALL. It was scary.
How would I buy time if my lesson plans weren’t ready when the children were?
How would I occupy the children if there was anything I really needed to get done without interruption?
What would become my new go-to distraction for the children if they began bickering out of boredom?
How would I manage all of our needs for down time?
But the alternative was more scary to me. I pictured ALL as two lovely bright children walking from room to room, eating their meals and brushing their teeth with screens permanently held two feet from their faces – the irony didn’t escape me.
Improved perspective puts screens in their place
Before I had even started the countdown on this experiment, I had learned a lot! Just asking these questions aloud lifted a sort of veil I hadn’t known I had been living under.
I realised I had some time management issues if buying time for lesson preparations was at the top of my panic list for no TV week. I guessed this probably had something to do with my own screen obsession and was curious to see if this would resolve itself over the tech-fast week.
My kids are older now than when we first made our Screen Time rules. I do not need a TV to babsit my kids. They CAN amuse themselves and what’s more, I totally trust them to do so.
Now, I don’t always use the TV to distract the children from bickering, but clearly I was letting opportunities to express feelings and work through disagreements slip through my fingers and that wasn’t fair on the children.
Down time would be difficult with one child still not reading independently and having my own need for down time. Plus, I have to admit, you can be too tired to read. I created a quick playlist of podcasts for emergency use only. If I were an audiobook person, I would have had some of those handy instead.
I would need to examine my thoughts and feelings about my smart phone as much as I examined our relationship to TV and other screens.
I did find I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands to get those lesson plans prepped for the next day. And if I still didn’t manage to do so, it had more to do with my ability to focus. I journalled about it. I discovered stuff about myself.
My eldest had a lot more opportunity to read books, something he has always wanted, but has always found difficult with a little sister looking for entertainment. My youngest finally had a lot of opportunity to practice at playing alone and has really mastered it in one short week.
I can now spot an argument about to happen from a mile away. I’m finely attuned to their triggers in a way I just wasn’t before, because I wasn’t watching them.
The first day or two I did need those emergency podcasts to help us see the day out. Changing habits is hard. But by the end of the week, there was no need for me to manage everyone’s downtime. By the end of the week we had run through a mental list of alternative ways to relieve boredom or to rest so many times that the children could consider their options independently.
I am currently doing my level best to take Phillipa Perry’s advice to heart and keep my smart phone use out of sight of the children. Nothing makes you realise what a Google addict you’re behaving as like hiding in the bathroom half the day so you can play with your phone.
At the end of the experiment, we sat down as a family and discussed what we did and did not like about our tech-free week. The kids enjoyed all of the extra play time. They missed easy down time. I enjoyed feeling on top of my to-do list, for the most part. I missed falling down rabbit holes. My husband missed snuggling up together to watch TV at the end of the day (I’m not sure he enjoyed anything about tech-free week – I’m pretty sure he cheated all day long while he was at work).
I did feel that our most valued habits shone through:
We were parenting well underneath this scarcity mindset of screens. I just needed to lift the veil that I had placed over our heads. At the end of tech-free week we made a list of healthy habits we thought were worth striving for every day. It looks something like this:
We use it like this:
- Approach each day as if there is enough time to do all of these things. It’s a short list.
- This is the most important step. When time feels scarce, we place limits on habits of low value, skewing our perspective and creating a scarcity mindset.
- Refer to the list throughout the day.
- When the children ask for Screen Time, first unpick whether they’re truly tired or just bored.
- If they’re bored, look to the list for suggestions.
- When the children ask for Screen Time, first unpick whether they’re truly tired or just bored.
- Check in with how each person is doing with the list at natural intervals during the day, such as meal times.
Screen use can fall under ‘learn something new’ and ‘rest’ on the list for us. It has a place. I’m not aiming to get rid of the TV. Not anymore. Our aim is to put screens in their place, in balance with all of our healthy daily habits.
Whether you’re having a lot or a little Screen Time on any given day, you CAN feel good about it. Personally, I’ve found it helps to think of Screen Time as a sort of meal. Did we sit down together to consume this media? Did we all enjoy it? Are we hungry for more, perfectly satisfied, or have we over indulged? Find the sweet spot. And if the answer to these questions is ‘no’ – did the children laugh at least? No one would begrudge a child the occasional sweet treat. I won’t begrudge my children the occasional episode of Rabbids either (though I will not be watching it with them).
Screens have a place – as a tool for learning, resting, and sharing in an experience together. It also provides opportunity to practice mindfulness, moderation and an improved perspective, if we choose to maintain an abundance mindset.