What If Your Family Went Screen-Free for a Week? Here’s How, And What It Could Do

What would happen if your family committed to just one week of going screen-free? Would you or your child experience panic, anxiety, unease, resentment?

Most parents and teens spend about nine hours a day in front of screens and agree that limiting their screen time to just school or work would be a major challenge. Eighty-three percent of the nine hours in front of screens typically has nothing to do with work or school and is spent texting, listening to music, watching shows and movies, playing video games, browsing websites, and using social media. 

Why try a screen-free week?

A healthy diet of moderate screen time can be helpful and educational and contribute to better mental well-being, but there are many drawbacks to overconsumption. Over consuming can literally lead to addiction, poor sleep, and unhealthy weight gain.

Addiction

Playing video games can release dopamine, the “feel good” hormone that is part of the brain’s reward and pleasure circuits. There is an American Psychiatric Association diagnosis given to people who are addicted to online gaming: impulse control disorder. The negative effects of this disorder can be both physical and emotional. It is generally characterized by social isolation, feeling restless or irritable, preoccupied with previous or upcoming games, fatigue, poor personal hygiene, and migraines from eyestrain. While the short-term effects include isolation and poor self-care, the long-term effects can lead to financial, academic, and occupational consequences.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep hygiene is essential for all humans, but it is especially critical to the developing teen brain. The use of screens in the evening has been correlated with the decreased number of hours of sleep teens get and can make the process of falling asleep more challenging. Screens have this effect is because most of them emit a blue light that interferes with the body’s natural ability to release melatonin, a hormone that causes one to feel sleepy at night. This delayed release tends to throw off the body’s natural biological clock and circadian rhythms.

Weight Gain

It is no surprise that weight gain is also associated with the use of screens. There are several contributing factors that can lead to unhealthy weight. The most obvious reason for weight gain is the lack of physical activity when sitting in front of a screen. The lack of sleep when screens are overused can also affect our body’s ability to regulate weight. And last, unhealthy foods are often marketed on screens, as well, which leads to poor food choices. Some screen-free advocates will go as far as to say that sitting is the new smoking.

Steps to Starting Healthy Screen Consumption

  1. Identify screen-free time.

    The goal is not to eliminate all use of screens but to set limits on it. It can be easiest to do this when there are clearly defined windows of time when screens are not available for use. For some families, mornings are a time when screen use is prohibited because most teens are rushing out the door to make it to school on time. There has also been research showing that screen use can have a negative effect on executive functioning (memory and attention). Not a great way to start the day! The dinner table and time in the car are also great opportunities to limit screen use. With the busy lives that teens lead these days, parents now have limited opportunities to connect with their children. These windows of time can be made sacred by setting hard limits on making them screen-free zones.

  2. Get busy.

    When kids are busy outdoors or engaged in extracurricular activities, they get the bonus of face-to-face communication. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that all kids get at least 60 minutes of activity a day. Explore their interests and get them signed up for weekly activities that reflect their interests.

  3. Turn it off.

    Set a deadline for when screens and technology get turned off. This can take the form of turning off a Wi-Fi router at a certain time each night or collecting phones, iPads, and computers to be charged in a place that is not visible. Your child’s health, development, and well-being are dependent on sleep. Encouraging healthy sleep habits sets your teen up for success in all aspects of their lives.

  4. Be a role model.

    Don’t think for a second that your child will alter their behavior if you aren’t making changes to the way you use screens. We cannot expect our children to regulate their screen use if we are not able to do so ourselves. Be mindful that the expectations you set for your child should be adhered to by everyone in the family.

  5. Be a partner.

    When approaching the subject of weaning your family from screens, make sure you take a collaborative approach. By developing these policies and rules together, you will have greater buy-in, and your teen will be more likely to adhere. When you are forming the policies, be clear that they apply to everyone in the family and that everyone is accountable. This approach often feels more respectful and collaborative, which will encourage your child to cooperate in the effort.

The use of screens and technology is inevitable in all of our lives. As parents, we need to be responsible users and help our teens to do the same. It takes some time and patience to make these changes, but they pay off by making parenting a whole lot easier, allowing more opportunities for connection with your child, and ensuring your child has the greatest opportunity to learn and grow.

Would you like to have your own Device Use Contract to make sure you are covering all your bases? 

Device Use Contract

 This article was originally written for The Committee For Children Blog.


About the Author: Melissa Benaroya


Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters, and the co-author of The Childproof Parent. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education.

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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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