I’m not the kind of parent that thinks that television will rot my kids’ brains or that using an iPad will give them ADHD. Yet last week I participated in screen-free week. I wanted to take a break and reflect on the growing influence of screen time in my own household. After reading some criticism about this event I feel it is imperative to clear up some of the misunderstandings about screen-free week. Some claim that taking a break from screens “doesn’t promote wise family media habits”. I disagree. But before we get to what screen-free week is all about, let’s be clear about what it is not.
Screen-Free Does Not Mean Anti-Screen
Screen-free week is many things to many people, but what it most certainly is not is an all out attack on the ‘screen-based industries’. It’s not about slamming broadcasters and game developers. It’s not a protest where parents who don’t let their kids watch television or play video games rally around an effigy of a ‘very popular fantastical…animated sponge that lives under the sea’ chanting anti-screen slogans. So, what is screen-free Week all about?
Turning on Life
Everyone will have their own slant on what going screen-free means to them. I want to share with you the mission of screen-free week as stated by the organizers themselves, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood:
Screen-free week (formerly TV Turn off week) is an annual celebration where children, families, schools, and communities turn off screens and turn on life. Instead of relying on screens for entertainment, participants read, daydream, explore, enjoy nature, and enjoy spending time with family and friends.
Screen-free week isn’t just about snubbing screens for seven days; it’s a springboard for important lifestyle changes that will improve well-being and quality of life all year round.
At the heart of screen-free week are the thousands of parents, teachers, PTA members, and leaders of religious and civic organizations who organize local activities and events around the world.
Reading instead of relying on screens? Enjoying time outside? This may be the dream of many parents (and the nightmares of some children) but there is an important take home message in this that does not discredit all technology in one fell swoop: technology can be entertaining, but so can real life! There is nothing in the statement above that suggests that technology is inherently bad or good. Last week’s celebration simply encourages us to consider it carefully. I personally found this break as enlightening as it was refreshing. In some ways, it renewed my love for the screen media I do choose to consume. In other ways, it highlighted just how much I rely on videos and games to relax, have fun, or even cheer myself up after a hard day’s work.
It was important to me that my family and I took part in the celebration. Over the past year or so I’ve noticed screen time playing a more and more dominant role in the household and I wanted to gain a little perspective on that. Screen-free week provided the perfect opportunity to disengage enough to reflect on the role that screen-based media does play in our lives on a day-to-day basis.
Dumbing Down the Discussion
When industry representatives say that the emphasis should be on ‘managing screen time’ instead of ‘breaking the screen habit’ I agree with them. But when they say that screen-free week is as effective in changing media habits as “Eat nothing week” would be in changing dietary habits, I cringe. Aside from the fact that hunger strikes, or so-called “eat nothing” events, have had a demonstrable impact on major world events, there is a stark difference between food and screen media; namely, that we do not need screen media to live.
Think of screen-free week as analogous to Meatless Mondays. This event emphasizes taking one day a week to opt out of eating meat and opt in to being more thoughtful about where your food comes from and what kind of impact those choices have on your health and the environment. It’s about awareness of the issues and making a positive change in one’s lifestyle; it’s not about becoming vegetarian.
In the same way that going meat-free for a day brings awareness to the health and environmental impact of eating meat, screen-free week is about raising awareness of our (over?) reliance on screen media for entertainment. It’s about making positive lifestyle changes that involve “enjoy[ing] nature and enjoy[ing] spending time with family and friends.” It’s not about shunning technology in general or screens in particular. It’s about bringing our awareness to our media habits and our reliance on technology. It’s about thoughtful reflection and making positive changes in one’s life. How can that be a bad thing?
The Industry Spin on Screen-Free Week
It may not be surprising to note that the some in the industry don’t support screen-free week. In his recent Huffington Post article David Kleeman, President of the American Center for Children and Media, argues that going screen-free does little in terms of supporting ‘smarter’ use of screens. He suggests that, while TV turnoff week (screen-free week’s predecessor) might have been effective back in the 1990s because “unplugging the television for a week represented real sacrifice,” with DVRs and today’s technology you can still access the same content. He also suggests that saying ‘no’ to screens “may foster self-control, but it does little for critical thinking.” I beg to differ.
The Screen-Free Week Sacrifice
There is some truth to the claim that the content one forgoes during screen-free week is still available via DVR. The catch is that DVRs are present in only one third of Canadian households while 95% of TV viewing is live. In my own experience last week, the biggest sacrifice I made in terms of the television content was giving up a full week of NHL playoffs. I assure you I will not be trying to catch up before tuning in to the next game. And yes, perhaps 15% of TV episode viewing occurs on a tablet, but linear, one-way television still represents the bulk of the remaining 85%. And with preschoolers’ screen time dominated by television, which clocks in at an average of 32 hours per week, we cannot say that we are out of the woods yet.
Genius Can Wait
The point has also been raised about the young creators who are using digital tools as a means of expression and creativity. In his article, David Kleeman asks, “Are tomorrow’s Lucases and Spielbergs required to shut down Final Cut Pro (or, for younger kids on tablets, Toontastic orDoodlecast) during “Screen-Free Week”?” My response is, in short, yes! Artists, including budding young creators, should be free to create on whatever platform they see fit. However there is no reason to believe that a week-long digital hiatus would impact them negatively. On the contrary, there is research to suggest that unstructured outdoor play can have a positive effect of children’s creative thinking among other benefits of physical activity in general.
It’s true that not all screens are created equally and they shouldn’t be treated as such. Using a video editing application on your macbook is not the same as playing angry birds or watching television. But just because ‘screen is not a screen is not a screen’ doesn’t mean that we should not contemplate the use of more advanced digital tools as well.
Some Common Ground
With the differences of opinion noted, I want to give credit where credit is due. We do need to focus on media literacy and smarter day-to-day choices. We do need to support parents with information about the negative effects of background television on parent-child interactions and language development. We do need to support teachers with relevant curriculum and the tools to help their students analyze content on all kinds of platforms. And we need to equip our children with the tools to help them make sense of the unending stream of messages directed at them in today’s media-saturated world. Being ‘screen smart’ on a daily basis is important and I believe screen-free week is a great place to start.
We all want our kids to grow up as responsible citizens in our connected society. While we may disagree on how to get there, it’s reassuring to know that we’re headed in the same direction.