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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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