Encouraging Screen-Free Activity: Why and How
Older generations remember growing up in the days before the internet. We had television and video games, but not nearly as much variety in either as we have now. Streaming had not become a thing yet, so we didn’t have constant access to all the TV, movies, and music we wanted to consume at any time, and we certainly didn’t have tiny computers we carried around in our pockets. It was easier before this to more naturally develop off-screen hobbies, because we didn’t have to tear ourselves away from screens that offered constant, somewhat addictive entertainment. Imagination came in handy, creating our own stories, games, and art either by ourselves or with our friends.
Now, screens are almost always at our fingertips, and we pull them out to scroll every five minutes and use them to watch all sorts of video content. We use our devices while traveling and even at unexpected times, like in the bath or at the beach. Most people can’t get away from them even if they would like to. School, work, entertainment, research, and even social interactions all function on the computer or tv to some degree. If you do have hobbies that don’t rely on screens, you likely still have to spend a significant amount of time on the computer. Most schools and jobs actually require access to computers to complete your work. The majority of cell phones are smartphones, so just by having one you are a member of the constant screen time world.
As for entertainment, much leisure time has been moved to computers in the last few decades with the internet, video games, and streaming. There’s a lot of very exciting things happening in all those areas, things that are worth our time (to different degrees). Advancements in recording quality and design, and new stories featuring ever more diverse people, keep things interesting. Sometimes our friends post videos on various social media platforms that we can watch whenever we want. It can be hard to tear ourselves away from these things when there is just SO MUCH CONTENT at our fingertips.
There are a lot of benefits to screens, such as being able to use the internet to learn and connect. It’s clear that they are going to remain a significant part of our lives. However, they are not everything.
Play that takes place away from screens is important for a healthy balance and certain kinds of development. Practicing both motor skills and social skills can benefit from play beyond screens, such as pretend play, arts & crafts, and building toys. Independent thinking and problem-solving abilities will develop more fully when kids learn to think through problems and challenges instead of just googling the answer. Plus, creativity, self-awareness, and individuality in general are all fostered by opportunities to entertain yourself by exploring your own ideas and thoughts, something that often stems from being bored. Consuming an endless train of content does not have the same benefits.
Some studies have suggested negative effects of too much screen time on kids. Some of the affected areas you have probably heard about are attention span, physical health, and social skills. Since the fact of growing up with constant access to screens is pretty new, and much of the research that has been done on the effects of screen time is ambiguous or inconclusive, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how detrimental it might be. However, experts agree that it’s beneficial to limit screen time, and we can all see that there is much to enjoy beyond TVs and computers.
Here are some tips on how to incorporate more screenless time into a kid’s (or adult’s) life.
Participate in Screen-Free Week.
Screenfree.org is the official site of Screen-Free Week, an “annual invitation to play, explore, and rediscover the joys of life beyond ad-supported screens”. Taking place the first week of May, it’s a time when people from all around the world log off their screens and shut off their TVs to focus on other experiences. They happily invite people to take part in whatever portion of the week they can manage. If you can’t stay off screens the whole week, do a weekend, or even a day. You can make an official pledge or participate on your own if you prefer. The website, which is linked at the bottom of this page, explains further, plus they have interesting resources and can even help you connect to others who take part in Screen-Free Week.
Provide specific alternatives or activities.
While you can just say “no screen time” and let kids work it out for themselves, having options available can help. Instead of being left with the idea that they now lack something they want, kids’ attention is redirected to another activity, making it easier to stay off screens. Having a few choices is probably best, since it’s common to be interested in different activities depending on one’s mood. Making specific plans for certain times could also be very helpful. If there is something concrete to look forward to, kids are more excited to focus on that and won’t mind being pulled away from screens – at least not as much.
Focus on activities that match kids’ interests.
It’s important that the alternative activities are things that match kids’ interests. The best way to offer a non-screen option is to think of things a child likes to do and lean into that. If you say “No phone, go read a book” to a kid who doesn’t like reading, or “No TV, go play outside” to one who prefers to be inside, they’re a lot less likely to listen, and will probably just feel like you’re being unfair. They may feel resentful and end up spending the whole time thinking about getting back to their phones or computers, and then they won’t really get the intended benefits from screen-free time. They may even associate it with negative feelings and react by focusing even more on their screen-related hobbies. However, if your kid loves reading and you get them the next book in a series they enjoy, they will probably be excited to get into it. Having something new can definitely help, as novelty tends to create interest. That doesn’t mean you have to buy anything – you can get that new book from a library, borrow toys or games from a friend, or maybe even do a toy swap with someone you know.
Don’t make it seem like a punishment.
This one might be tricky since taking away screen time sometimes is used as a punishment – not in every household, but certainly for some. The best way to do this is to explain why you want to limit screen time and make sure you don’t relate it to their behavior. If they resist and pout about it, then it might still seem like they think they’re being punished. The new toy/book/game of interest tip comes in handy here too – getting a new toy and indulging something they like is the opposite of a punishment.
Do things together.
One way to make the screen-free time pass faster and reinforce that it’s not a punishment is to doing an activity together. You can do whatever makes sense for your family or group. Play a game, do a craft, go for a walk. This is an opportunity for quality time, which is also great for kids and adults of all ages. You can also try getting beyond your home and family unit. With time to kill without the distraction of screens, it’s also a perfect opportunity to connect with the community. Find events, volunteer, or make a play date at a local park.
Go easy on kids and yourself.
Sometimes, you mean to stay off your devices but end up streaming a series or scrolling social media for hours. Don’t get mad at yourself or your kids for not staying away from screens. Especially if it’s a general habit, it can be very hard to resist. The best thing to do is acknowledge that you didn’t meet your goal and try again. It can take a while to break a habit, so allowing yourself to be less than perfect will help. Think about why you gave into that habit and maybe come up with ways to make screen-free time easier. Keep at it, and encourage your kids to keep trying to have less or no screen time, even if you or they don’t meet your expectations in the beginning. Eventually, kids may look forward to their screen-free time and be able to create a healthy balance for themselves, and you will too!
These are a few suggestions for how to approach screen-free time. There are, of course, other resources out there to help. We definitely recommend checking out Screenfree.org for some of this info and considering participating in Screen-Free Week the first week of May.
What are some of your favorite non-screen things to do? What would help you have more screen-free time?