I invited Sharyn White (inset with husband Scott) to share some reflections on her family’s fortnight of no screens. Read on for her insights into the challenges and surprises of the process. Through this project her kids raised over $1600 for our church’s building fund by collecting sponsorships from family and friends.
From the first day I sat my son down in front of the television with the purpose to entertain him to now, 11 years later when I let him play on the computer for a couple of hours straight, I have wondered if I’m being a good parent by allowing him to do this, or a bad parent. There is something about screens as a form of entertainment that leaves me uneasy.
So when my children decided to attempt two weeks of no screens to raise money for a project they are passionate about, I was excited and slightly terrified.
We have three children: Harrison(11), Riley (10) and Alexandra (7). Depending on homework or sporting commitments, they can spend up to two hours in front of a screen on a weekday. On a Saturday and Sunday, that number could go as high as five hours if you include a game of football or an afternoon with a friend. I’d like to think five hours is the exception, but in the footy season it’s probably not (and then there’s cricket in the summer!).
I am really aware that for some reading this these numbers constitute child abuse, and for others they might be small in comparison. I desperately want to justify them to make myself feel better, but will restrain. They are what they are.
My biggest fear in attempting the challenge was what we were going to do with all those free hours. How was I going to keep my kids entertained? And by entertained, I guess I mean out of my hair and under control.
Surprisingly, entertainment was never an issue. Screens were quickly replaced by a range of other activities, which the kids thoroughly enjoyed. And other than some board games and a couple of outings on the weekends, the kids initiated their own play. They never once asked to get in front of a screen.
The kids didn’t struggle to find new ways to spend their time, but they did struggle.
The first week was tough. The kids weren’t bored, instead they were very tired. Every afternoon involved fights, tears and tantrums. I could see that at the end of a school day, they just wanted to sit and switch off in front of a screen. These meltdowns were so absurd, and the effect of screens so glaringly obvious that in these moments if I didn’t laugh I would cry. It was really hard to watch my kids adjust. It was so tempting to put them in front of a screen knowing that it was all that was needed to bring peace and rest to the house. But it also made me more determined to see this challenge to its end.
I’ve always known that screens provide a lot of entertainment for very little effort. It’s called instant gratification. Screen-time can be both mindless, and stimulating. But what shocked me most during the challenge was how conditioned my kids are for that type of activity; so conditioned that it affected their physical and mental capacity when it was removed. Remaining pleasant, being creative and staying engaged took more effort than they were used to.
Fortunately it only took one week for that conditioning to change. The second week was a completely different story. Their capacity to positively engage in their surroundings increased, and the rewards were great. They spent longer on homework, they settled into other activities for longer periods of time, and I think the familiarity with certain board games allowed them to find this form of entertainment relaxing.
I discovered through the challenge that if screens equal instant plus gratification, then removing or restricting a child’s screen-time doesn’t remove or restrict the gratification part of that equation, but the instant part. My kids loved their screen-free challenge. Harrison even spoke of extending his time because he could identify the benefits. The entertainment and the enjoyment were there. But they had to adjust to the effort it took and the character traits required to get these things in their different forms.
Harrison would identify the benefits of the screen-free challenge as better quality school work, learning new board games, and spending more time with mum and dad. As their mother, I too enjoyed all those benefits. But I also loved to see them grow in perseverance, their consideration of others, creativity, patience and the list goes on.
I would recommend taking up the screen-free challenge to any family. Give it a go, and you might discover some interesting things. But if that’s not your cup of tea, then can I encourage you to remove some of the ‘instant’ that invades your children’s lives; whether it be in the form of play, extra-curricular activities, dinner magically appearing on the table or a fresh pile of ironed washing.
My kids are capable of more than I give them credit for. And it is a joy to see them thrive on discovering that for themselves also.