The Screen-“Free” Challenge

By Brent Hutzal – Brent is co-chair of Parent Involvement Committee. He has two daughters, Kate (8), who attends Bridgeport Public School, and Claire (almost 3) will be attending Bridgeport Public School JK Class of 2019-20.

Brent Hutzal

Brent Hutzal with his wife and daughters

“Daddy, did they have Screen-Free Week when you were a little boy?” Kate asked me on the Sunday evening before the dreaded week began. Yep, this was going to be a learning experience.

As background, Screen-Free Week is an annual event – this year, it was “celebrated” during the week of April 30, 2018.  As explains, it is a week where “children, families, entire schools, and communities will rediscover the joys of life beyond the screen. Plan to unplug from digital entertainment and spend all that free time playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring, and connecting with family and friends!”

How can you possibly say no to that?!

To clarify, a “screen” is referred to as any form of technological hardware such as televisions, tablets, smart phones, computers and video games. As my wife and I learned more about this initiative, we agreed that it sounded like a great opportunity and that we would participate with our two daughters, Kate and Claire. Like most parents, my wife and I do not believe that we let our kids have an excessive amount of screen time. But, like most parents, we probably do.

We have all been made aware of late of the potential harms of unrestricted screen-time for our children. If you are inclined, you can review the official position statement of the Canadian Pediatric Society, but, to summarize, screen-time has increased significantly over the years for children under five and continues to do so. The CPS concludes that, while there are both potential benefits and risks of screen-time to child development, the difference-maker is minimizing and mitigating screen time as well as being mindful about the use of screen time. It is frightening to see cases such as this story of a knock-off Paw Patrol video, where our kids can be innocently exposed to inappropriate online content.

So it’s all good, right?  We would participate in Screen-Free Week with ease, experience some self-improvement, and never look back. Not quite.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we never intended the week to be completely screen-free – we did have exceptions, some of which are endorsed by Screen-Free Week.

  1. First of all, if it was for work, then it was ok. My wife and I still had to do work on our computers and reply to emails on our smart phones, which was acceptable – you can’t fault us for doing our jobs!
  2. Secondly, if it was mandated by Kate’s teacher, Mrs. Sutton, then it was ok.  For example, Kate still needed to complete her minimum of 30 minutes of Dreambox or we would all face the wrath of the sticker, “Please remember to complete your 30 minutes of Dreambox homework,” in Kate’s planner. Just kidding, Mrs. Sutton!
  3. Next, if it was Friday night (which, while we are not huge Star Wars fans, was May the 4th after all), then it was ok. We don’t really have an excuse for this, other than we knew that it was going to be a really long week so please cut us some slack.
  4. Lastly, if it was double overtime of the Kitchener Rangers Game #7 conference final playoff hockey game, then it was ok. Maybe I slipped in this exception on the very first day of Screen-Free Week, and I did feel guilty about it, but in my defense, it was Game #7. Double overtime.

Other than the exceptions above, how did we do? To be honest, I was very impressed with my daughters – they persevered at a higher level than my wife and I. We prepared them for the week well in advance and there really was not that much push-back once we started our new routine.

I know that I mocked it earlier in this blog post, but Kate and Claire really did spend their “free time playing, reading, daydreaming, creating, exploring and connecting with family and friends”.  Instead of tablets in the morning, we spent time having a leisurely breakfast, practicing piano, or just playing and reading. After school, we scheduled some errands such as a vet appointment and grocery-shopping, played outside with friends, did crafts, enjoyed board games, had quiet time, went to swim lessons, and even helped out at the Food Bank one night. It was a busy week, but we definitely experienced a greater quality of family time.

I have three takeaways as I reflect on Screen-Free Week 2018:

  1. I am thankful that Screen-Free Week is the week of April 30th (and that spring decided to finally make its appearance that week) and NOT in the dead of winter, when there are fewer options for screen-free time.
  2. I have a love-hate relationship with Screen-Free Week – that is, I love it for my kids, but I hate it for myself. I am not going to lie, it was a tough week early on, but as the week progressed, habits did change. I predicted that this exercise was going to be easy for me, but hard for Kate and Claire, when in reality the opposite was true.
  3. It is ok to be Screen-“Free” and not Screen-Free for the entire week. Like any bad habit, it is almost impossible to go cold turkey (especially during the playoffs). One successful outcome of the week was proving to each other that we do have the ability to make healthy choices and self-regulate. At the end of the day, any decrease in screen-time will ultimately pay dividends and is a good first step.

Technology does have the ability to enrich our lives, but we know that this is not always the case. We are often glued to our screens and are forced to compete with our loved ones for attention. I would say that as a result of Screen-Free Week 2018, we are more mindful of our screen time. Actually, we have since implemented a new rule in our household – absolutely no tablets before school. As a parent, we can often use technology as a “crutch”, for example, as an excuse for a more peaceful morning while breakfasts and lunches are being made.

I encourage you to throw away that “crutch” and try some of your own small steps in your household now. You don’t even have to wait until Screen-Free Week 2019 – you can try this experiment with your family this spring. I would love to hear from you on how your week went and the impact it had on your family time.

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