My family went screen-free for a week to re-learn how to talk to each other

Challenge accepted.
Challenge accepted.
Image: photosteve101 via Flickr CC BY 2.0
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As the parent of three children, I know all too well how hard it can be to get kids to put down the iPad and shut off the iPod. So when a local parenting magazine asked for volunteers willing to unplug for a week, I jumped at the chance.

From the beginning, my kids hated me. My husband, Jon, wasn’t too happy either, since the challenge meant that everyone in the family would be required to go screen-free for a full seven days (work excluded).

Like most families, the five us spend way too much time in front of our screens. And despite a plethora of studies suggesting technology may be hurting everything from our relationships to our sleep patterns, we’ve become utterly too dependent on them. I stop at a traffic light and check my e-mail. My husband tells me about a business idea and I find myself looking at Facebook. The second we get home, the kids want their screen time. More often than not I’m inclined to say OK—time spent without fighting or complaining is a rarity, and the best chance I have at getting work done without interruptions.

The problem is that if it was up to Noah (11), Evan (9), and Jessica (8), my kids would never look up from their respective screens. Ever. Prior to our challenge, I had noticed a marked change in our way of life. The joys of personally interacting with others had started to fade. The swing set in the backyard sat eerily empty. The board games in the cabinet languished untouched, and the tips of the crayons in the drawers remained pointy.

Surprisingly, when the week ended the kids were not even asking for their electronics. This confirmed my theory that, at least with my family, the more we use technology, the more we crave it. But more on that later.

The preparation

We prepared for our 168 hours of tech-free time by stocking up. First we hit the the dollar store and Target and bought art supplies. Call it a bribe if you want, but each kid also got to pick out a decent Lego set (and by decent, I mean pricey). Then we made a list of activities we wanted to accomplish during the week. Interestingly, on the very first day of the challenge, most of these new purchases were opened and used, but by the end of the week many of the items on the activity list had been left undone. Left to their own devices, kids will eventually find their own ways to fill the downtime.

Interestingly, communication was one of the first visible benefits of the experiment. Without an Xbox or iPad to turn to, conflicts between siblings were addressed quickly so no one would be forced to play alone. When not interacting with each other, free time meant an opportunity for coloring, Lego building or baking. Meanwhile, pre-bedtime rituals went from TV watching to playing (low-tech) games, reading for fun (and not because a teacher assigned 20 minutes of it), and learning (or at least attempting to learn) how to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

While they won’t admit it, I honestly think the kids actually got used to being screen-free. As the week came to an end, the complaining had basically stopped, and cries of “I’m bored!” had almost disappeared.

After the article was published, we received a lot of attention from friends and acquaintances as well as other media outlets. Clearly, we aren’t the only family whose lives had become dominated by excessive technology use. The consensus seemed to be that while our experience was exemplary, it would be hard to replicate. The comment we heard most was “Wow, we could never do that.” Our response? “Yes, you can.”

It’s been some time since we’ve gone completely screen free, but I did—and still do—highly recommend trying it, especially for anyone convinced they’d never make it. The hardest part is committing. But I promise, you and your kids will survive, especially if you spend a good amount of time beforehand brainstorming alternative activities.

Perhaps the best advice comes via my son Noah, who was nine at the time. “If you say it’s boring, it’s going to be boring,” he told a reporter. “But, if you say it’s fun, it can be fun.”