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Take the Screen-Free Challenge

The third annual Screen-Free Week is April 29 to May 5. Take the challenge to turn off your cell phones, TVs, and iPads to spend more quality time with your family.

You may feel like you’ve heard it all before, but listen up, as it’s worth repeating: Turn off the TVs, ignore your cell phones, and tune in to your family. Try it for one week, at least!

Do you know how much time your children spend using screen-based entertainment like television, computers, video games, or cell phones? Do you know how much time you spend with screens? This is important because research is telling us that children ages 8 to 18 are spending 7.5 hours a day watching screens, while preschool children are using screens for over four hours a day. Think about how you may be contributing to this increased use of screens.

Family on their computers and cell phones at the dinner tableChildren are watching us engage with cell phones for work, check email on the computer, and pass time with games on the tablet. They see us tuning in to our favorite TV shows. Whether for work or personal pleasure, parents are spending a lot of time focused on screens, and their children are getting the message.

We’ve all seen it at restaurants, where each member of the family comes in with his own portable device and sits through the meal without a word exchanged except when placing food orders with the waiter. Parents shouldn’t be surprised when they want the attention of their children but they won’t respond because they are captivated by something on their screens. To complicate matters, we no longer have control over the presence of screens in our lives because they are ubiquitous; we now find them at the bank, the gas station, the nail salon, and many restaurants.

“Parents are spending a lot of time focused on screens, and their children are getting the message.”

As more studies highlight the increasing number of hours children spend with screens, research is also showing that the amount of screen time affects school success. Children who spend less time with screens get better grades, are better able to concentrate, and have improved problem-solving skills, increased compassion, more imagination, curiosity, and creativity. Time with violent video games contributes to children becoming desensitized, often eventually bullying. Even popular shows like "Dora the Explorer" are more apt to spend most of an episode dealing with conflict in the plot rather than with the resolution.

It is also important to consider how much advertising children observe. Advertisers spent $100 million marketing to children in 1983. After deregulation during the Reagan Administration in 1984, advertising to children has grown to $17 billion today. Children ages 2 to 11 are watching about 25,000 commercials a year. Research shows children as young as six months are aware of brands. It used to be that a show was created for children and, if popular, a line of toys or products followed. Today, it is common for the products to be developed first, then the show.

Research also indicates that children do not recognize the difference between commercial advertising and TV shows until they are about 8 years old. Consider our obesity epidemic in light of food advertising to children: A third is for cereal, a third for candy, and the other third is for fast food (which alone spends $3 billion advertising to children).

So what can we do about this trend? 

First, evaluate media use for your family to assess just how much you and your children are spending on screen-based entertainment. Look at who, how, when, where, and why media is used. Then, develop family guidelines. Think about limiting screen time to specific days and times, turning off TV and media during meals, and having children ask permission before the TV can be turned on.

Next, discuss media with children. Talk about what is good and bad. Discuss what you like and don’t like. Talk about scary things they may see on screens. Pay attention to the news stories you have on and explain them if children are nearby. Talk about fantasy versus reality. Have a conversation about commercials—and explain how they are distinct from the program. Ask questions about who your child’s favorite character is. How does the character feel? How would your child feel in a similar situation? Why does your child think the characters did that? Would your child react the same way? Discuss how problems were solved, and how your child would solve it.

Most importantly, find alternatives to screens: Go outside, take a bike ride, bake cookies, make a scrapbook, build a tent, play a board game, or watch the stars. Decide that Sunday afternoons are screen-free for the whole family. It’s amazing the things you will find to do—and the ways that communication channels open between you and your children.

You can also take the Screen-Free Week challenge. The Third Annual Screen-Free Week, a national campaign to encourage Americans to turn off their TVs, computers, and video games for seven days and explore other ways to enjoy family time together, is April 29 - May 5. The message is to be “screen smart” by remembering there is a life away from screens. Screen-Free Week is coordinated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a national advocacy organization devoted to reducing the impact of commercialism on children. Look back on Screen-Free Week and try to reshape family time so it is more screen smart. There’s a whole world waiting for you and your children.

Dana E. Friedman, Ed.D., is president of The Early Years Institute in Plainview, NY.

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