Children, unplugged: The joys of a (mostly) screen-free summer

TURN OFF, TUNE IN: Emily Harrison and her kids enjoy the world beyond screens. Photo courtesy of Harrison

BY EMILY HARRISON

My family is doing something crazy, almost unheard of, this summer. Our kids, ages 5 and 8, are going screen-free for the majority of the summer. So far, we haven’t all killed each other. In fact, we are just having a normal summer — but with less arguing.

Sure, there are still the constant reminders of “keep your hands to yourself” and “put your socks away so the dog doesn’t eat them.” But generally speaking, by declaring screen-free days and screen-free weeks (yes, entire weeks!), I’m not caught in the constant negotiations of screen-time usage.

This isn’t a massive leap for us. During the school year, like many families, we don’t allow screens on school days. What I realized in the spring, though, was that screens were being used every single day in my then-second grader’s class. That meant my little 8-year-old child with his developing brain and body rarely had a day without a screen. Rarely a day without a screen!

My kids didn’t come bounding out of school in June asking for screen-free days this summer. It was my idea. I’ll take the credit, or the blame, depending upon who’s looking into our fishbowl. We started with a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule and then added a Saturday and/or Sunday here and there. Before I knew it, they weren’t asking for screens very much, so my husband and I didn’t offer them.

Then we declared — OK, maybe threatened — a screen-free week if the bad attitude of a child who will remain nameless didn’t cease after he turned off the television. Well, without going into too much detail, let’s just say at this writing that we are on day eight of a 14-day run of no screens. You know what? It’s been fine!

The downsides of screen time

My sons’ pediatrician says the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for my rising kindergartner, and he recommends the same limit of one hour a day for my 8-year-old. And less is always best. Those AAP recommendations, released in 2016, are aimed at kids ages 2-5 (avl.mx/6ch).

Can I tell you a secret about my children? They behave better when they don’t have screen time. I’ve heard from other parents that my children may not be the only ones. Maybe my children are some sort of anti-screen mutants, but I’d like to believe the only mutants in our home are of the Ninja Turtles variety.

They have proved they can make the two-hour drive from Asheville to Charlotte without a screen pretty easily. (Having a snack on hand sometime after passing Hickory helps.) They still whine and complain and ask for screens. But what I’ve noticed is that on the days we do have screens, their behavior is worse. I’ve done some digging into the peer-reviewed scientific research on screen usage for kids, and the science backs this up.

The adverse side effects of screen usage for kids? Sleep disruption, stress, irritability, anxiety, defiant behavior and emotional dysregulation, along with decreases in attention span and the ability to understand facial expressions and nonverbal cues — plus increased risks for poor vision (including myopia), eyestrain, obesity, less empathy and decreased gray matter in the brain. This list isn’t even exhaustive. For more info, see Psychology Today in 2015 (avl.mx/6ci) and 2018 (avl.mx/6ck) plus Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, published in 2000, available for free online by the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood (avl.mx/6cl).

In my research, I haven’t found any negative effects for children who take a break from screens for a few days or even a few weeks. Look, in our home, we have a TV and smart phones — and I’m typing this on my laptop. Currently, I’m not advocating for no screens, ever. It’s 2019; that’s ridiculous. Make screens a forbidden fruit? That’s a whole other set of problems.

Screen-free summer fun

But I want what many parents want for their kids: for them to do more than survive. I want my children to thrive. Summer is more than halfway over already. Soon, they will be back in the classroom with screens, even for my rising kindergartner. These final few weeks of summer might be their last chance to create a new game, play outside for hours on end, meet a new neighbor, catch lighting bugs, read a paperback book, set up a lemonade stand with the neighbor kids, learn to help me cook dinner, wash our car or just be bored!

I know a lot of families who chose to raise kids in Asheville because of our quick access to nature. And nature-based activities can help foster brain development, particularly executive-function skills, according to a 2015 report from the nonprofit Children & Nature Network, based in Minneapolis (avl.mx/6cm). So, we are doing more of that this summer.

I’m not the only parent with kids who have screen-free days. A lot of my friends have done the same thing this summer. One friend mentioned that her kids have bonded more because they have decided it’s fun to play together.

And yes, there are times when I just want my kids to sit still, be quiet and let me get some stuff done around the house or even take a deep breath. I’m tempted to hand them a screen in these moments. But then I remember that if a screen is the one thing I can guarantee will cause them both to sit down and be quiet at the exact same time, maybe it’s not worth it. Maybe all of those negatives outweigh my 22 minutes of quiet. When everyone says parenting is the hardest job in the world, they are right. But it’s also the best job in the whole world. I want more for my kids than screens can offer. I had better take advantage of this while summer lasts.

For our family, we will still allow the occasional show (not on a tablet) or have a family movie night; we may even FaceTime with their grandma in Virginia. But mostly, we are opting out of screen time. Summer is our only chance to give our kids’ growing bodies and minds a break from all of the detrimental side effects of screen time.

As a generation of parents, we are the first to have to truly regulate screen time. Sure, when I was a kid, my dad told me and my siblings to “turn off the idiot box” or “don’t sit so close to the TV.” But screen time today is a different ballgame. All of the experts, from local pediatricians to the World Health Organization (avl.mx/6cp) are telling us to “limit, limit, limit,” so we are heeding their advice. So far, our screen-free experiment has been a huge success. Less arguing, more sunshine. Summer in the mountains truly is the best.

Asheville resident Emily Harrison is mom to two boys and a member of the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, a project of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

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One thought on “Children, unplugged: The joys of a (mostly) screen-free summer

  1. Carter Wood

    I couldn’t agree more. Screens are not evil, especially when being used for educational endeavors, but they are primarily a distraction from the real world going on around us. This is true for both young kids navigating a complicated world and the parents trying to steer them in the right direction.

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