It begins innocently enough. You are at a restaurant waiting for the check. You know the dinner outing was a success. However, your little one is ready to move on, now. He starts asking for the phone. You give in. He doesn’t disturb anyone because he is in a trance like state watching the phone, without an interest in anything else.
That seemingly innocuous decision turns into something more as it becomes too easy to choose the convenience of the tablet or phone. It becomes expected and a habit. There are certainly more dangerous habits to engage in, however this was one I wasn’t proud of.
Abolishing screens in this digital day and age would be near impossible. Indeed abolishing all screen time isn’t what is advised – the AAP advises parents to limit screen time for toddlers to one hour a day of high-quality programming. Research shows that excessive screen time for children has been linked with aggression, sleep problems, and trouble relating to others. We were somewhere in that range however I decided to detox for a week to break our habits.
Why I Cut Screen Time
As much as the digital age brings the opportunity to become connected to the world more than ever before, along with it poses the risk of being more disconnected to what is right in front of us. But what shook me to change was when I saw the raw pictures by photographer Eric Pickersgill in his Removed series. In this series, he captures “empty hands around the world.” There are many images of families both in the home and out but the phones are removed. What is left are individuals staring into empty hands as the family members ignore each other staring into emptiness of where the phone should be.
These moving photos sparked the realization of what a tragedy it looks like to ignore what is right in front of you. And of course, the admission most of us already know, we as a society are terribly addicted to our screen time, and particularly our phones. But the question that haunted me was, at what cost?
It was time to be proactive. So we unplugged. In the screen-free week that ensued I learned a few things.
1. I Am Guilty
The last thing I ever want is for my son to feel inferior and important because of my phone. Yet in cutting my son’s screen time, I became increasingly aware of my screen time. It was harder than I thought it would be to minimize my screen time. I’m not sure what triggers me to constantly check my phone, whether it is checking the mail, scrolling through a twitter feed, or planning a date with friends – none of it pressing or important. As the week progressed, I realized that I am the one that needs to unplug because otherwise I will become the person staring into empty space surrounded by, yet ignoring, those I care about most.
2. He Quit Asking
He quit asking. My worst fear during this week was that he would be incessant in asking to watch his favorite shows. The anticipation turned out to be worse than the actual experience. Once the routine set in quite the opposite happened. That’s not to say there weren’t hard moments – there absolutely were. Overall it was a better week, there weren’t the battles to watch one more episode or tears because TV time was over.
3. Less Watching And More Action
We engaged in more activities and new routines during our digital detox. He helped me cook and we started swimming after dinner. Rather quickly the television was forgotten as he became immersed in painting, swimming, or cooking with me in the kitchen. Children have no problem being present in whatever they are doing. It’s us the adults who lose that somewhere along the way.
4. Eliminated Digital Restaurant Habits
Eliminated is a strong word, but we did eliminate the habit of relying on a digital device at restaurants for the week. Most experiences at restaurants with my son are great. But not always. Sometimes he acts like a toddler (imagine that). In those times, I formed a habit of letting him have my phone. This habit initially formed because I did not want to disturb other patrons who should not be subjected to my son’s potential tantrum – but then it turned into a habit where my son expected to have screen time at restaurants. In our no screen week – we went once to a restaurant. We went to a fun kid-friendly place, Jimmy Hula’s. Although he asked for the phone he accepted a no and moved on. And guess what, without a phone, he didn’t burn the place down and everyone enjoyed their meal.
5. Mindful Media
Not all media is bad. In fact it can be used as an educational tool to help children create, connect, and learn. The AAP developed a family media plan that you can visit here. What I was missing before we unplugged was that it was haphazard. If we watch television in the future, it will be guided by intention and balance. My son does not make his own choices at this age. If I turn on the television he will watch and if I don’t turn on it – he won’t watch television. As my child’s “media mentor” I have the responsibility to be proactive, set limits, and establish our family media plan.
At the end of the detox, I’m not here to say I’ll never flick on the television “just because.” But I can say, that cutting screen time has been great for our family and a teachable moment, for myself.
For more personal parenting moments, check out Why I Won’t Force My Kid To Share.