HOW TO GO SCREEN FREE (We did, and you should, too)

There are a lot of children these days who spend way too much time in front of a screen. I don’t have to be any sort of parenting expert, doctor, or educator to confidently say that there are a lot of kids who spend too much time in front of a screen.

They are everywhere!

In front of a screen at the park, at a restaurant, in school, in the car, at the doctor’s office.

Literally, everywhere.

If you are someone with a kid or many kids who wants to break free of screens, this post is for you.

I won’t belabor the benefits of going screen free

After all, if you made it to this post, you are already pondering the various benefits of going screen free, and I don’t have to use this post to convince you of it’s value.

Instead, let’s talk about the ways to make that happen.

Two options: Gradual or Cold Turkey

The way I see it, you can turn a corner on screens in one day, or do it over time. The benefit of doing it gradually is that you’ll probably be met with less screaming and drama overall as you wean your kids from their screens. But the downside of that (and the upside of cold turkey) is that you’ll also delay the benefits of going screen free.

Let’s talk COLD TURKEY

When I say cold turkey, I mean, cold turkey. If you are going screen free, this means no television, no computers, no handheld devices or video games. This means no phone in the car, no tablet in the restaurant.

For your kids who have become accustomed to having electronics in their hands, it may be a jarring change.

If your kids are old enough to understand what you are doing and saying, I recommend 100% that you talk to them, and explain to them what you are doing and why. If they get angry, let them have their feelings. If they complain, hear them out. But let them know that you won’t be relenting, or using the screen time as a reward or for any other reason.

This also means that you are going to have to change the way you do some things. For example, if you are used to letting kids have screens in restaurants to keep them from breaking everything, you might just consider not going to restaurants where this would be a problem until the kids are old enough to not break things.

If your kids can’t handle an 8 hour car ride without a screen…then perhaps you just don’t go on trips that require an 8 hour car ride until the kids can handle it without screaming the whole way.

Or, instead of forgoing those opportunities, you find ways to help your kids enjoy them, and get through them. Are your kids unruly at the dinner table? This could be a sign that developmentally they are not ready to sit still for so long. Or it could be that they don’t understand how to occupy themselves at a restaurant, because they’ve never been given an opportunity to learn how. When we go to restaurants, I made sure to bring several things for them to do that are not screens. I let my littles drive tiny cars on the table, I let them color or even read to them while we wait for our food.

In the car, I load up on toys, books, and food. We listen to podcasts, music, and audiobooks in the car. We play I Spy and point out cool things we see.

For holidays and birthdays, this means not getting them electronics or the video games they have been asking for. It means that your kids won’t have their own iPhones or laptops or Kindles. They’ll have to put up with hearing from their friends about all the cool stuff they don’t have.

At home, I don’t have the luxury of getting quiet time for myself by putting on the television. So to find time to myself, I have to either get someone else to cover me while I get some space, or I just try to make better use of my time when the kids are asleep or at school.

Worried about how the kids will fill their time when you aren’t letting them use screens? You will probably find that the kids complain a lot at first. After all, they aren’t used to finding things to do on their own. You can support them by helping them find things to do, but I do recommend against constantly entertaining them. You don’t want to be swapping screen entertainment for mom-entertainment. Kids of any age (all the way down to infants) are 100% capable of entertaining themselves, and finding something to do.

In fact, if your kid is complaining of boredom, this is EXACTLY what you want to see, because it is at this critical point that the child has the option and opportunity to find something to do. On his or her own. Don’t jump in and spoil this learning opportunity by giving him something to do, or telling her all the options for things she can do.

Let her figure it out. You know how many adults these days cannot do this? I think it is an actual problem, and I honestly think it is a contributing factor to the ever growing issues of unhappiness and dissatisfaction amongst teens and young adults these days.

Yes, going cold turkey is going to be painful. Yes, there will be crying. The kids’ brains are addicted to this stimulation. It is natural that they want it to continue. But if you stick to it, here’s what you’ll find (according to my experience anyway):

  • Very quickly, your kids will find something else to do
  • They will start to play in ways you’ve never seen before
  • Their moods will seem brighter
  • They will have fewer meltdowns
  • They will exhibit greater creativity than you thought possible

While I can’t say this is the direct result of our screen free lifestyle, I do think my kids sleep better, eat better, are healthier (because of greater activity), and they are doing better in school.

Think about all the time the kids used to spend with a screen in their face, and then think about spending that time talking to them, playing with them, or teaching them. Can you imagine how that relationship with them would improve and grow? I just can’t see how it wouldn’t.

Gradual works too

It can take time to get used to going screen free. Everyone has to change. The parents, and the kids. Everyone has gotten into the habit of using screens.

As noted above, there are lots of things that you might have to change, beyond taking screens away. This might mean having to pack more or different stuff. This might mean having to face a child’s tantrum in a store, or keeping a child occupied in the waiting room. It means more effort on the parent’s part.

At least in the beginning.

If cold turkey is a recipe for failure, and it can be for some, a better goal might be a reduction of screen time to start with. Maybe it is reducing screen time before bedtime, or after school. Or maybe it is traveling without screens or going to dinner without them.

Maybe you stop the video games, the social media, or the YouTube. Maybe it is banning phones from dinner time, or at restaurants.

If you start with small goals in mind, over time you can get to a screen free lifestyle.

Parents are going to have to change too

If you want your family to be screen free, you are going to have to also make changes. The kids won’t accept and get over the loss of their screens if you continue to lose yourself in your Facebook all day long while they are supposed to be playing.

Kids mimic the behavior you model. If you want the kids to find something to do when they are bored, you need to show them how it is done.

Here’s my 10 Tips to go screen free

  1. Talk to everyone in the family about what is going to happen and why. Explain what the specific changes are going to be.
  2. Whatever changes you are making, whether it is cold turkey or gradual, commit to them. Don’t slip. If you start up on screens a little bit, you’ll slide back into old habits.
  3. Be prepared for the pain of change. The kids are going to be grumpy, upset, or even angry at first. It is going to take time for everyone to get used to the new lifestyle.
  4. Make lots of alternatives to screens available (toys, art, games, friends).
  5. Change your schedule so that the loss of screens isn’t so apparent. If you did movies after school every day, try being out of the house after school instead.
  6. Fill that old screen time with the good stuff. Use that time to engage with your kids, rather than just keep them busy.
  7. Model the behavior you want to see.
  8. Tell your friends and grandparents that you aren’t doing screens, and that if you come over (or they come over) that you don’t want them to put on the electronics for the kids. In general, when I have done this, people are willing to get on board. And if they aren’t, I just don’t go over there that much, or have the play date at my house where I can control the screens.
  9. Remove the screens from the house or lock them up. This sounds extreme, but it might be necessary. I actually got rid of my television a few years ago, and that space is now a crafting area.
  10. Make screen time (when you do have it) something really special.

On that last point, I think that there is a lot of joy in sharing some really special shows or movies with kids. I just try to make it an awesome event that we do rarely, rather than something we do all the time, all day long. For example, we’ve been reading books made from the Star Wars movies for several weeks.

Finally, I got to sit and watch the first original Star Wars movie with the kids, and it was a HUGE deal, and so awesome. It was really amazing, and something I think they will always remember. This would never have been the case if they’d been watching Star Wars bits on YouTube for the past several years.

You can go screen free if you want to

Any family, I don’t care what the needs of the child is or are, can go screen free. Children have been raised for thousands of years without screens, and I don’t have to tell you that children these days are not flourishing as you might expect, especially given the unprecedented access to information, education, and medical care (at least in First World countries).

Children are suffering from ADD/ADHD/Depression at every increasing numbers. It is astounding, and saddening. There is research that does suggest a correlation between the growing ADD diagnoses with the amount of screen time (source). While it is far from definitive evidence, it is enough for parents to sit up and take notice.

If you want to go screen free, you can. But it won’t happen until you are committed to it. Just like anything, like eating healthier, losing weight, getting up earlier, etc. If you are lukewarm about the need to do it, or the desire to do it, it just won’t happen.

And that’s why I bring up the struggles children are having these days, and the potential connection that screens have to it. It seems like there is plenty of motivation out there to go screen free, if you look for it and pay attention to it. And it doesn’t have to be scientific studies.

The evidence of the need to go screen free is present already, in your own house. In your own relationship with your children. In the way they are addicted to their electronics, and the way they act when you make them stop. They way they don’t play. The way they sit like zombies with their mouths hanging slightly open while the colorful images move around.

I want my kids to be as happy, healthy, and cared for as possible. For us, that means raising them without screens (or at least as little as possible).