Why Screen-Free Week May Be Exactly What We Need

From April 30 to May 6, North Americans will be experiencing life beyond their screens.

Screen-free week initially started as TV-Turnoff week in 1994 by the creators of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood. The founders of the program saw the benefit of a digital detox to reassess the role that screen media plays in children’s lives.

Today, the average teenager (and their parent) spends 9 hours a day in front of a screen. Tweens spend 6 hours a day and preschoolers spend as much as 4.5 hours every day looking at a screen.

So how is all this time spent engaged with digital technology effecting us? Screen time for young children is linked to speech delays and the inability to regulate emotions. An Alberta study examining how digital technology is impacting children found that students are more distracted, have a difficult time focusing and are coming to school tired. A recent study involving participants aged 19-32 showed that social media use was significantly associated with depression and multiple studies have demonstrated a link between problematic smartphone use and anxiety.  

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The more we engage with screens, the harder it is to disengage with them. Without giving ourselves a break and unplugging, we are essentially just strengthening the need to be constantly plugged in.

If you have never given yourself the gift of a digital detox, let Screen-free week be the catalyst. Reduce screen time and allow yourself and your kids to be “bored”. It will spark your imagination, ignite creative ideas, promote deep thinking and strengthen your connections with each other.

Before you start, take inventory of your family’s screen time and a mindful approach to how it may be affecting you. If you feel like a week without screens is just not possible, break it down into manageable pieces. Try eliminating screens from 4-8pm every day or going the week without social media. Whatever digital detox means to you, let this be a spark to live beyond the screen and fully engage in life!

A life looking into your phone is not a life
— Michelle Obama
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What Kids Say about their Parents’ Tech Habits

“My Mom is always on her phone”

Those are the words I hear after every presentation I give to students. At the end of my talk, I always ask the kids “when it comes to technology, what habits do your parents have that you wish you could change?” That is always the top answer.

Whether you believe it or not, you are the most important person in your child’s life. Our kids may be way ahead of us when it comes to streaming, downloading and snapping but they depend on us for our wisdom and guidance. They depend on us to model a healthy relationship with technology so they in turn can reap the benefits technology has to offer without being controlled by it.

Even though our phones allow us to connect with anyone at anytime… should we? Is our relationship with our phone bringing too much convenience to our life at the expense of our own wellbeing and therefore our children’s wellbeing?

As human beings, we crave new information. Even the thought of a new notification, message or email, causes our brain to secrete dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel good. Our phone allows us to be constantly connected to the internet which in turn allows us continuous access to new information. New York Times best selling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Nicholas Carr, states the internet "allows us to live in a perpetual state of distraction and interruption.” This constant state of distraction actually interferes with the ability to transfer short term memories into long term memories. A process called memory consolidation which is required for learning.

Learning creates wisdom and our kids rely on us for our wisdom.

Some may argue that they don’t spend long periods of time on their phone. They just use it when they have a spare moment. A quick scroll through Facebook or a game of Candy Crush isn’t a big deal. Well according to Dr. Cal Newport, a computer scientist and author, this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration. When our attention is constantly fragmented, it can have long term effects on our ability to think deeply, be creative and focus.

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Deep thinking, creativity and focus allow us to better guide our kids through the obstacles life brings them.

So while it isn’t possible (and I’m not suggesting it) to completely disconnect from your smartphone, it is possible to take back control. To pay attention. To realize that when you wake up in the morning and sit in silence instead of immediately checking Instagram, you are choosing to be more focused. When you go for a walk and leave your phone on the counter, you are choosing to be more mindful. When you drive your kids to hockey and leave your phone in your bag at the red light, you are choosing to be a good role model. You are taking control over your phone and choosing to have a healthy relationship with technology.

Our kids have infinite opportunities to connect with the world but are they able to connect with us? We just have to start the conversation… ask your kid the question… “am I always on my phone?”

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
— James Baldwin
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If you want to keep your kids safe online you need to look in the mirror first

Parents tell me they are worried about what their kids are posting online, who they are talking to and who might be trying to communicate with them. Well-meaning parents are also concerned with how much time their kids are spending online and how their digital life is affecting their health and relationships.

Before we can expect our kids to have a healthy relationship with technology, we have to have one ourselves.

It isn’t fair for us to expect our kids to put their phone down and head up when we ask them a question if we are swiping and scrolling at the same time ourselves.

We are sending mixed messages when we tell our kids to stop posting so many selfies but then share their pictures on our own Facebook page without asking them.

We are not setting a good example when we tell our kids not to get involved in online drama but then complain about the comments our own friends made on Twitter.

The challenge when modelling good digital behavior is that we are still figuring out much of this “tech stuff” ourselves. We don’t have those personal experiences to rely upon when it comes to teaching our kids how to stay safe online. Our parents didn’t sit us down and have the “selfie” talk with us.

Unfortunately that doesn’t mean we are excused from discussing tech use with our own kids. They need us to model healthy tech behavior. They rely on us for guidance and mentorship and if they don’t learn from us, they are going to learn from someone else. Someone who may not have their best interest at heart.

Long before our kids own a phone or use a tablet, they are learning about digital citizenship from us. They are learning how important our phone is to us. So important that we:

  • take our phones to bed
  • watch our screen instead of watch our kids play soccer
  • take selfies with exploited wildlife
  • text and drive with our kids in the backseat

Young kids especially don’t realize all the apps and resources we have available to us at our fingertips. We may be replying to an urgent email, transferring money or responding to a friend in need, but all they see is that our phone is receiving more attention than they are. In their eyes, we are unavailable to them, but always available to our phone.

Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you
— Robert Fulghum

Digital technology enables accessibility. So much so that we have to carve out device-free time in our device-filled world. But it’s worth it. By taking back control from our phones and adopting a healthy digital diet, our kids will benefit. They see, learn and follow our lead. They will be kind, creative and empowered when using their devices and be less vulnerable to addiction, narcissism and isolation.

Here are some easy tech habits to try for the New Year and create a healthy digital lifestyle for your family:

  • start and end your day with you - keep the first and last hours of your day device-free
  • greet your kids after school by looking them in the eye instead of looking at your phone
  • unfollow anyone who is a negative influence online
  • create a family charging station - keep all devices out of the bedrooms overnight
  • embrace technology - try something new that promotes creating rather than consuming media
  • keep the conversation going - ask your kids about their tech use every single day

Our digital habits and attitude directly affect how our kids interact with digital media. Make 2018 a year of less scrolling and more connecting.

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