Screen-Free Week: 5 Reasons to Say No

Family GeekMom
Photo courtesy of S. Cook.

Every year, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood hosts a Screen-Free Week, and every year I roll my eyes. This year, it’s May 4-10. This is not the first time a GeekMom has spoken up about this “event,” and I suspect it will not be the last.

The website says that “children and families will rediscover the joys of life beyond the screen. Unplug from digital entertainment and spend your free time playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring, and connecting with family and  friends.” The idea that these values and using media are mutually exclusive, as well as the clear judgement about what is more valuable, is misguided and counter-productive. Here are five reasons to say no:

1. It’s easier to make a habit than break one, and even then it takes longer than a week.

Most of the emphasis of Screen-Free Week is on breaking what parents perceive as bad screen habits. But science has shown that it takes an average of 66 days to integrate a new behavior. If parents really want to build better media habits, they would be better off looking at it as a process rather than an event. In addition, looking at forming a new habit around screen time in a positive way such as making room for and participating in other activities, rather than a rejection of using technology as valuable way to spend time, is more likely to create long-term balance.

2. Screen-Free Week projects a value judgement that can be polarizing.

I don’t know who came up with the idea that by giving up screens for a week kids will rediscover the joys of “playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring, and connecting with family and friends,” but clearly it is someone who is either technologically illiterate or in the business of fear. Our house has plenty of screens and my children do all of these things, sometimes with the use of screens and sometimes without. In any given week, they have played with Legos, read a comic book, created a new piece of art, explored a new hiking trail near our house, and connected with their friends at the park. They have also used screen time playing video games, read reviews and articles on their favorite sites, created an entire city in Minecraft, explored the latest research on finding sunken ships in the ocean, and connected with their auntie living in Shanghai on Skype. All of these things have value and all of these interests feed each other. When you reject what they love, they may see it as a rejection of them, and then it becomes a battleground. Spending a week focused on breaking what you may see as limiting but your kids see as limitless may shut down the conversation before it even starts.

 3. Screen time should be part of a holistic lifestyle.

Technology is integrated into almost every facet of life. Approaching it as a tool, creating the understanding that we control technology instead of the other way around, and fostering a healthy relationship with screens is a far better use of our time than demonizing screen time. The earlier children can learn to create their own balance around technology, the more we parent them into a consistent and long-term view of a holistic lifestyle that embraces technology. We should be setting up a dynamic between screen time and kids that models self-regulation, healthy nutrition, exercise and sleep practice, and personal knowledge. Ripping the screens away for one week will do nothing towards this goal, nor will kids even consider the lesson attempted by adults who can’t even model and maintain a holistic lifestyle themselves.

4. For some kids, screen time is essential.

My friend has a son who is gifted and delightful and has a learning style that relies on screen time. In her own words:

“We have learned that my son’s very high IQ was hiding severe sensory processing issues. In uncovering those, his OT has helped us to see that tech in general and the computer specifically is his one ‘safe place.’ As she said, the world is unpredictable and feels like a sensory assault on him every day, all day. Being in public is hard. Being one of three noisy kids in a tiny house is hard. When he has stretched himself in that way, he needs to unwind, to decompress, and to be able to feel like there is a place where he understands the rules and can trust that they won’t be broken or bent (except by him, of course). His number one self-soothing method is creating mods in Minecraft. He is literally making a world of his own design. When he has ample self-directed time, he is ready for the challenge of engaging with the world. In the middle or end of it, he would ‘pop out’ and was so incredibly engaged, enthusiastic, kind, warm, thoughtful, and deeply connected. Pretty much the opposite of how he was ‘supposed’ to be. Screens don’t automatically create disconnection, but a disconnected kid would way rather engage with a screen than continue to feel disconnected from their parent.

He has also come to love and appreciate the natural world through technology. He actually told me as a toddler that he did not like animals or nature (guess what my priorities were/what I pushed?). He refused to go to the zoo or on hikes. For two parents who met working at REI, this was painful. But TV shows and video games brought him a new understanding and appreciation of the world, and he is now passionate about marine biology and animal rescue, and is the first one in the car to ask us all to stop and look at the beautiful scenery around us.

Technology, specifically screen media, is an absolutely vital resource for my son, who needs to learn and create and hack all day, every day. My single biggest regret as a parent is not looking deeper into my own fears sooner and opening my heart to my son’s innate passion and gift.”

Can you imagine what a Screen-Free Week would do to a child like this, especially one imposed by parents who have the power to overrule or parents who have not made this connection yet?

GeekMom Jackie uses a variety of apps for her daughter’s speech therapy. GeekMom Sophie uses games right now to support her son’s desire for better spelling. My son is watching a lot of anime right now to support learning Japanese, which is doing more for him than any language program. Does this screen time also get banned or not because they are considered “worthy” or “educational?” The judgement on what is “good” screen time and “bad” screen time is arbitrary and senseless. Which brings me to…

5. We need to stop using screens as a value judgement on others.

You know, kids are people, too. Whole little beings with values and interests of their own. We now live in a period dominated by technology and that is not going to go away. Neither are the tech passions and interests of our kids. The thing about kids is, they are more likely to do what we do, not what we say. Instead of imposing our judgements on what would be a valuable use of our children’s time, we should be modeling what we would like to see. We should be listening to them about what they love instead of shaming them into giving it up for a week. Instead of banning screen time, we should be helping them to recognize how their minds, bodies, and hearts feel during all their activities, including when they are using media. Think about something you are very passionate about and then imagine someone you love implying there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed based on that passion. That is how kids hear it.

Is programming a robot with an iPad more valuable than playing a video game? Many would say it is, except I could give you a different take. One of my sons loves Assassin’s Creed. Intrigued, I started playing it with him and saw him using superb logic and strategy to navigate the game. The different versions sparked an interest in history, which we began to explore online and through documentaries and museum visits. He also started to be interested in cosplay, learning to sew and make weaponry based on the characters. Finally, before this awesome video even came out, he initiated learning parkour. All of that from one game. Is a plumber more or less valuable than someone who designs websites? Both work, certainly, but we don’t judge the value of one person who works with their hands over the other who works with a computer. So why do we insist on judging play so harshly? Play is the work of the child, to quote Maria Montessori.

I don’t have to share every interest that my kids have, but if I have any expectation of them respecting my passions and those of others, I have to give them the same. This notion of “better” needs to go and be replaced with a healthy understanding of what is good for the person and the family. More or less screen time may be the answer, but that decision should be made out of knowledge, insight, and respect, not fear and pressure.

I suggest that instead of a Screen-Free Week, we hold a Screen-In Week. Let the kids choose all the media for the week and let the parents participate in whatever they choose. Talk about their choices, learn why they are passionate, connect those values to other activities to create balance, and model it yourself. And when the week is over, keep doing it because that is how we stay connected and one week is not enough. Not even close to enough.

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10 thoughts on “Screen-Free Week: 5 Reasons to Say No

  1. Yes. Yes. And yes! Thanks for spelling this out Samantha!

    It’s like the new product we saw advertised not long ago that looks like a tall wooden salt shaker, but when you twist it, it shuts off the wifi/electronics in your house. Even my 14 year old immediately said, “So, your kid wont go searching for what caused the outage, and instantly just accept that there is no service?….why can’t the parent just say ‘it’s time to turn off electronics for dinner?'”


    It’s not a ’cause’. It’s a lifestyle choice. We love the screens in our home, when they are used correctly and in moderation…that WE decide as parents.

    GeekMom Judy

    1. I agree with you, taking away screens is like taking away books. I fell like this screen free stuff is dumb, you can’t just take them away. Your kids would be mad. If taking way screens is better their “health” then what do you think they feel when their parent takes them away for a week, especially if they grew up with it. Scholastic made an article on this, and it is EXTREMELY bias. Just balance the time, and the kid is gonna have a perfect life with screens. If you read until here, i would like to say thank you fir listening to my arguments, and hers too!

  2. I don’t think it’s about screens. I think it’s about exposing our kids to the materialism associated with commercials. My kids hate T.V., having been raised without them. My youngest was confused and irritated when she first saw commercials. “They’re just trying to trick people into buying a bunch of stuff they don’t need!” Call her judgmental, but that’s how she perceived it.

    On the other hand, although my kids have been exposed to a lot of screens and screen time in the last two years (they never had it previous to 2012), we still do Screen-Free week. For us, it’s not about making new habits. (I’d say 17 years with no T.V. is a pretty solidified habit.) Although we always do all the nature-y, fun, outdoorsy, stuff, taking a week to devote our hearts nd minds completely to it does make a difference. We do MORE of it. It’s a stay-cation really. It also brings our awareness to how much time we MAY be spending doing nothing, or being on screens, or focused on less wonderful things.

    We can all slip in and out of behaviors without realizing it. Screen-free week is when we truly realize whether or not we backslid into some not-so-great behaviors.

    1. If Screen-Free week works for your family as a stay-cation, great. Go for it. But I would wager that if you use it to identify behavior you consider “not so great,” you already know the answer. And a week is not going to fix it. That’s like doing a juice fast for a week and then going back to fast food afterwards. Certainly commercials have a profound influence on society, and some of the marketing out there is genius. I think our kids can be more genius. I think learning to filter it out is one of the best life skills I can give my kids. In fact one time, they were so taken in by a toy they saw on TV. It didn’t look that great to me but it was their money. Sure enough, they bought it and were very disappointed. Lesson learned. In fact, it was a lesson far greater than just the power of commercials. From then on, they really focused on saving for special things, and they even check the return policies before buying now. They also choose to record everything they watch so they can skip commercials, or use services like Netflix. My point is that we shouldn’t be guilted into making value judgements around and taking actions against our/our kids interests. The whole campaign feels a bit shaming to me, and that’s the last thing families need.

  3. I find this article silly, much like Valentines Day. It is insane that we need a week of no screen time. How about being a parent and moderating what you kid does? In our house I love my wife everyday, not just on some crappy holiday. Also I moderate what my kid does, so there is no need for a stupid screen free week. Try being a parent and stop copping out every time your kid is off the chain.

  4. As a teacher, I talk about screen free week and make it an option. Obviously it is nothing I can make mandatory. And I agree with a lot of what is in this article. Therefor, I make it clear that it is not a value judgement on electronic media, which I love and is a huge part of society and culture. I also make it clear that I do not expect anyone to be completely screen free as that is almost impossible. Instead, I ask my students to try to avoid all entertainment, games, and other non productive screen time. At the end, they write about their experience. One week will not change habits, but I don’t think that’s what this is for. For my students I want it to be a chance to reflect on their electronic media habits. Was it hard? What were any positives and negatives? Did you cheat? Almost everyone does. This is like “buy nothing day”. That one day is not going to change much, but it is a chance to reflect on our and society’s consumption habits and learn about how they effect the world around us. Don’t like it? Don’t participate. No problem. No one is forcing anyone. But it seems like you’re knocking something you don’t completely understand.

  5. My God, you’re kidding, right? “Screen-in week”? Really? Boy, have you bought the tech company’s multi-billion dollar kool-aid. Everything you say may be ok if not for the over 200 peer-reviewed research studies that show that screen time really isn’t so great for kids; that it can lead to clinical disorders like ADHD, anxiety, depression and screen addiction. Oh yeah–and it rewires the developing brain in very unhealthy ways. Your comments about “value judgements” are particularly absurd; Sometimes we do, as parents, have to be a little, y’know, judgemental and make value judgements for our kids; like, hmmm…heroin is kind of bad for people and kids, no? Is that being too judgemental? Please. Just look at some of the research. It really truly is not healthy for young kids to stare at a glowing screen for hours a day. I don’t doubt that you love your kids, but you’re inadvertently exposing to something that actually stunts their development and does not enhance it. You wouldn’t let them smoke, would you? In many ways, this screen zombification is worse.

  6. Alright, I am really late on this, but you guys, this is ridiculous. Screen Free Week is an option, and y’all have your own opinions. Stop hounding on her.

  7. Great article, very well-written. It’s structure somehow reminds me of dissertation abstract styles. It has certain points of view and personal author’s opinion. Even though not everyone is going to support it, still it’s pretty convincing facts you had expressed here. Thank you for sharing. I wish every writer had a strong opinion on similar topics.

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