Last year I blogged about Screen-Free Week in a post titled "Enjoy Media with You Kids Week." Well, it's that time of year again, schools are pushing "Screen-Free Week" or "TV Free Week." And even though Screen Free Week doesn't officially begin until April 30th this year, I have already seen parents posting on facebook about their children being unhappy with the TV being turned off because their school district has declared it TV Free Week. In my previous post I touched on why parents feel they have to go along with what the school says their family should do. Screen Free Week is a prime example of one of those times when parents go along with the system even though it creates an increase in conflict and unhappiness in most families. This unhappiness is irritating to the parents who feel they must enforce the rules set for the week while coping with the frustrations of children who express how they are feeling through their behavior.
Parents and children feel that they have to turn off the TV, and possibly all the other screens, during this week even though there are often other times when screen time naturally decreases. In our family we recognize that screen time increases as the wet cold Pacific Northwest winter wears on, but we know that as the weather improves we'll all be outside more often and spending less time gathered together on the couch or playing games that involve screens. For some families screen time takes a dramatic dip when they go on vacation, for others it occurs when cousins come into town or it's soccer season. Doesn't it make more sense to turn off the TV when there are other interests beckoning instead of during some arbitrary week that someone who has never met you selected?
One of the problems with an enforced screen free week is that when you try to control or restrict anything, not only are you creating an increase in tension or conflict in your relationship, you are also increasing the desirability of the thing you are controlling. Think about this in terms of candy. My kids can eat whatever they want whenever they want, no restrictions. However, many kids live in homes where candy is restricted. My kids may have times when they eat quite a bit of candy but there are other times when they don't eat any. My kids also have times when they eat a lot of fruit or salads or broccoli and then have times when they don't eat any of those things either. When kids who don't have free access to candy come to my house they will eat a whole lot of candy. They will even eat the candy that my kids have decided they don't like that has been sitting around for ages, and they will often stuff a piece or two in their pocket to take home for later before they leave. Those kids see candy as being highly desirable because it's restricted in their homes. It's that age old concept of supply and demand, decrease the supply and you increase the demand. I used to hate candy because of the conflict it created in our family but now I have changed so much that I wrote a blog post entitled I Love Candy.
The Screen Free website says that screen time is linked to poor school performance, childhood obesity and attention problems. I disagree. Looking at the facts I would say that school is more likely to cause these things. You don't have to take my word for it, Peter Gray has written quite a lot on the subject over at Psychology Today in posts such as "ADHD and School: The problem with addressing normalcy in an abnormal environment" and "Experiences of ADHD Labeled Kids who Switch from Conventional Schooling to Homeschooling or Unschooling."
When children are in school all day, mostly sitting and being controlled and not being provided with opportunities for authentic engagement (that means doing things they find interesting, that relate to their lives and that they have a purpose for learning), they get home and they need to decompress and use those hours to do what they enjoy and that they can't do at school. Often this involves technology and screens of some sort. Of course there are those kids who are scheduled and controlled for every waking house, but that will have to wait for another blog post. Kids have no problem paying attention to media or a book or any activity they choose and enjoy because of intrinsic motivation. If they aren't paying attention in school it's generally because they aren't engaged, they find the school environment inhospitable or they are coping with the social challenges of school including bullying. If we really want to "improve children's well-being" as the official site says we would take children out of the institutional setting of school and create opportunities for learning that are fun and innovative instead of pretending that making kids turn off media for a week is a "fun and innovative opportunity."
We need to look at how much we gain from media in all its forms and how games, TV shows and the internet can enhance our time together with our children and expand our opportunities for authentic engagement in learning. Learning takes place with all forms of media, not just "educational" TV shows and games. Screens are not the enemy, screens are a useful tool for learning, fun, connection and communication. If you have your doubts Google "benefits of gaming."
If your kid comes home from school talking about Screen Free Week remember that you don't have to be the school system's enforcer. You can talk with your child about why they want to participate, you can agree to support them in giving it a try and if they change their mind half way through you can acknowledge that choice without heaping on the shame or guilt. You can also respect each person in the family's right to make their own decision about participating, or not.
When my oldest child was in school she decided she wanted to participate because the school was making a big deal about the prize the kids would get at the end of the week. We told her that we'd support her in participating but her sisters were very little and weren't going to participate, and there were two shows that the adults wanted to watch after she went to bed during that week. At the end of the week she got her prize, which turned out to be just a sticker. She was not impressed by the sticker and that was the last time we gave into the hype around Screen Free Week.
In our house we are partners with our kids in the exploration of life, and that includes media. If our children want to explore what life with all screens turned off is like then we'll support them in that. However, it's their choice and if they decide part way through the experience that it's not for them we won't be enforcers, we won't tell them they have to start what they finished, instead we might discuss why they changed their mind, what it was like when the screens were off and then how things are different once they turn them back on. I actually have kids who will choose to turn off their computers for set periods of time because they decide they want to take a break from all computer related activities. Just yesterday one of them let me know she'll be turning off her computer for the first week of April.
If your child or your family chooses to participate in Screen Free Week this year remember that nothing is more important than your relationships with each other and that definitely includes turning off the TV because someone somewhere decided you should.