Screen Free Week: The Wrong Conversation

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My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft
My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft

As someone who makes games for kids to play on screens, I’m not a fan of the Center for a Commercial Free Childhood’s Screen-Free Week, which begins today. I’m all for kids getting more unstructured play, more time outdoors, more time reading, and other good stuff, but the label “Screen-Free Week” forces the wrong conversation that lasts all year long.

The Center for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) has found receptive ears here in New York City and elsewhere. I know many parents who have thrown out their TVs and heavily restrict other screens in the house. I’m on the tech committee at my daughter’s elementary school, and there are parents who are outraged at having computers in the classroom. Computers! Just wait until we can afford iPads! The parent association and the principal enlisted me to talk to other parents to try to change some hearts and minds.

When some parents think of TVs, computers, iPads, etc. they picture mindless games that suck the attention of their child. The CCFC reinforces this brain-rotting view of screen-based media, but it’s to the detriment of children as future members of our creative, technology-based society.

Here’s what I picture when I think of screens:

  • Tools: in one place you have (often) a camera to shoot pictures and video, a music player, and a recording device. Add in some creativity apps and all of the sudden you have a canvas for painting and a recording studio. This is a powerful combination to spark kids’ imagination.
  • Communication: FaceTime, Skype, social media… suddenly the world is not so big. I recently Skyped with four 6th grade language arts classes in Washington, Illinois to talk to the kids about writing for video games and blogs. Kids can have conversations with their favorite writers, actors, and even fictional characters. They can even connect with classrooms halfway around the world.
  • Research library: I’ve recently had to do a lot of research about animals, and short of seeing them in person, nothing teaches about animals like nature shows and videos. Kids can visit some of the world’s greatest museums while sitting in front of their screens.
  • Interactive learning: From ABCs and 123s to space exploration and the human body, apps give kids hands-on experience with learning concepts.
  • Entertainment: Ever want to unwind with your favorite show or game? Yeah, your kids do, too. And it’s not like their minds turn off while they’re being entertained. Kids’ favorite shows can help them think about social situations, or interesting topics, or even storytelling and character. A good game requires interesting problem solving.  My daughter and I talk about scientific method while playing Plants Versus Zombies.

The message of Screen-Free Week is that kids would be playing outside more were it not for screens. Kids would be reading more if it weren’t for screens. Kids would be healthy were it not for screens.

I’m not denying that screen time sometimes displaces other activities, but they’re not the root of all evil. See above. They’re actually pretty awesome. I like KaBoom’s active play positive messaging much better.

This is what I mean by the wrong conversation. Instead of being “for” or “against” screen time, we should be talking about how to create the lifestyle we want for our children. I’m going to borrow from Lisa Guernsey here, who talks about the three C’s: Content, Context, and the Child. I think that’s key.

What’s the right combination for your child, your family? When you consume content, is it quality worthy of your kids’ time? Do you co-view? Do you talk about what your child is playing/watching. You can turn something that you think may have no nutritive value (say and episode of SpongeBob SquarePants) into and awesome learning experience just by talking about it.

If I were to name an awareness week, maybe I’d go with “Quality Time” week. Have a look at your family choices for how to spend your time and see if they’re worthy of your family’s precious time and your kids’ awesome, developing, curious minds.

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14 thoughts on “Screen Free Week: The Wrong Conversation

  1. “Quality Time” week, I love it. If there’s a screen involved make sure you are too. Just because your child is playing outside doesn’t mean you can be sitting on the sidelines, as parents we should be getting our hands dirty at whatever task they currently have on hand.

  2. I do want to limit screen time, but worry that explicitly doing so will just increase its value. So far we’ve been lucky – the kids seem genuinely more interested in getting outside, even in weather where I’d *rather* be inside :).

  3. Nope. I’m a screen-free, or, let’s be realistic here, screen-limited, parent. I don’t want my child coming home with an iPad in kindergarten, though we live in a district that is likely to do such a thing.

    There’s plenty of time for manipulating devices and screens, and it’s not as though she doesn’t see those things at home. But I want her to interact and engage with the real world at her current tender age of 4. To learn social cues. To not be focused on an LCD 18 inches from her face (which research is beginning to suggest is encouraging near-sightedness). I know that I have enough trouble focusing and retaining information when it comes across the screen – surely I’m not the only one who still needs a hard copy to properly proofread. I believe that the delivery method absolutely impacts the retention and engagement of material.

    We’re not going to move to a cabin in Montana and raise goats or anything, and I do believe electronics can be an invaluable part of her education, but I wouldn’t trust Wii Sports to teach her tennis just as I don’t trust an iPad app to teach her to read.

    1. Janelle, one anecdote to share with you. My son love Byron Barton’s books, especially “Trucks” and “Planes”. We read them together, he’ll grab the books and read them by himself, and sometimes he’ll pop open the Oceanhouse Media apps for these books and have them read to him. Aren’t these all valid ways to spend time with the same book?

      1. For specific values of “validity”, sure. Those are all valid ways to spend time with a book. That doesn’t mean that I want my kid booting up a book app. In our house, electronics are Mommy and Daddy items. Kiddo is more than welcome to climb into her father’s lap and cheer him on during a game of Zelda (and she does so with gusto), but her play is different than our play. At her age, I believe her play needs to be more about social interaction and development than anything else.

  4. Isn’t the real problem our lack of comfort with our kids being able to be outside safely( pedophiles, drugs and sex – depending on the age), so they are more often inside? The screen time is a natural byproduct of this restriction, same as when I was a kid. The only difference is there are a lot more screens than there used to be! If we really want less screen time we have to take back our streets and towns, so we the parents can be comfortable kicking them out of the house!

  5. My child learned to read playing his Gameboy. No one taught him to read, he taught himself because it was important to him. He’s 19 now, a writer. And hey, you know what research suggests encouraged MY nearsightedness? Reading books, heh.

  6. I like so many of your points here, Amy. We can’t reject the media – we need to help our kids find their way through it, since it’s here to stay! Plus, as you note, there are quality resources that contribute to education and creativity.. However, I do think that a complete break once in a while is healthy. I’m glad that I’ve been able to send my kids to a summer camp where they get that total break from electronic media for several weeks each year. It’s refreshing.

  7. Well done Amy. There’s a giant electronic roadside sign placed just off the highway entrance to our town that advocates turning off screens for the week. I’d like to ask where is the similar week vacation from books, or telephones, or maybe internet radio? Every new medium that allows new ways to communicate has been deemed the devil’s tool (yes, all of them!). What I think needs to be promoted is how best to seek out quality ways to engage with these media, many which can help grow, and expand a person’s mind, young or old. Simply stating that the problem is with screens is really so short sighted and small minded. Pencils are evil tools too in the wrong hands, but in the hand of a thoughtful. creative person, they can open doors to the best in humankind. The same is true for screens, be it passive or active. It all depends on the hands that create the content to begin with.

  8. We do no screen week more to be aware of how much screen time they spend. This year I made the distinction-consuming via screens (ie hours of Fineas and Pherb) is out. Creating with screens is fine.

    So they are plugging away at Codeacademy and Scratch, which are normal activities when your mom teaches computer science. I am just using the week as a way of making the point about creating with thechnology. My personal kids are 10 and 12, and this has sparked some interesting conversations abbout the role of all the devices.

  9. I can’t love this article enough. My son has severe speech/language delays but is way above average in his motor skills, eye hand coordination, and spacial thinking. I know many people would like to blame screen time for developmental delays and disabilities but that is a completely separate argument that I disagree with. I view screen time as a way to bolster my son’s confidence. It is his talent and I love to encourage it. I imagine his world must be so frustrating. Imagine if you couldn’t communicate your feelings or understand what other people are saying / expecting of you? Not only does he need time to do things by himself (without the burden of expectations and communication), he needs time to do something he excels at. I love giving him computer time. After succeeding in a game, he comes away so happy and filled with confidence (and very eager to talk about it). If I blamed screen time for his language delays, and then deprived him of it, I believe he would be a much more unhappy and frustrated child. We in no way neglect his delays and devote a lot of time to that. He is improving rapidly, and I believe having confidence in the things he’s good at only helps him improve in those areas where he is week.

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