In September 2016 our family turned off our screens.
We went cold turkey. No television, no tablets, and no smartphones, during daylight hours. My husband and I were allowed our computers and phones for work, and we could contact friends and family at night when the kids were in bed. At the time our children were one and three and were watching an hour of children’s television in the afternoon of most days. Plus the news in the morning with Dad and a little bit of iPad time to calm them down before their nap. We thought a screen-free month would we hard, but we had no idea how it would change our lives. Here’s what we learnt.
When our children had plenty of time to play outside, they didn’t need screen-time. The month fell within a year-long family project—Our Year Outdoors. So our kids were spending three hours or more outside each day. And that made all the difference. All that running, climbing, swimming and jumping made them physically very tired. In the afternoon, after their bath, they played cars or blocks or sat in the lounge room reading library books in their pyjamas. And I could count on a couple of quiet hours to cook dinner in peace.
The afternoons were calmer that month and so were the mornings. In fact, about halfway through the month, we noticed a kind of quiet peacefulness descend on our household. The kids played more creatively and argued less. In general, they seemed happier. I was surprised that I noticed a difference when my kids had only been using screens for an hour a day. But I found research that supported what I saw—that even a small amount of screen time can have a negative impact on young children. In fact, a University of Virginia study found that four-year-olds experienced a drop in executive functioning skills after watching as little as 9 minutes of fast-paced cartoons.
I noticed other things that month too. I started to see how our collective dependence on screens is changing the landscape of childhood.
When I was a child my mum read The Little House in the Big Woods to my brothers and me. I remember being shocked by what took place at the dinner table in the little house. In the chapter about their Christmas celebrations, the protagonist Laura explained that she and her sister Mary did not say a word during the meal, because ‘they knew that children should be seen and not heard.’
The concept was utterly foreign to me. At that time I had lived most of my life in a university flat, on the bottom floor of a residential college. My Dad worked at the college and as part of his job he often invited homesick international students to our place for my Mum’s beef casserole and butterscotch pudding. The constant stream of interesting, young dinner guests helped my brother, who was six, develope a budding interest in politics. I was only three, but I was fascinated by their stories and loved it when they told us about what their own mothers cooked at home. Once after a meal at our place, I was invited to a dark-haired student’s tiny dorm room. She gave me lollies and let me sit on her beds and flick through her fat university textbooks. Another day an American student made a cassette tape of stories for my brothers and me. We treasured that tape and his Yankee version of Old MacDonald's Farm, long after he had returned to his homeland.
When I was a child I was included in all the conversations held at the dinner table. Now, I saw that I often used technology to push my own children aside. And it wasn’t only me. I noticed it a lot that September. At a dinner party where the kid's table was set up in front of a Disney movie, a child glued to an iPad in the doctor’s waiting room, and that most familiar gesture—a blinking iPhone passed across a cafe table. I had seen these scenes many times before, I had done them myself. But now I started to wonder. Were we on the road to recreating a culture where our children’s voices were not welcome? Where they would be allowed to be seen, but not heard?
I read a lot that month, and I learnt there were many reasons why limiting my children's screen time was a good idea.
In 2006 a study found that the time children spent on screens tended to take away from the time they spent engaged in creative play or interacting with parents and siblings—two things that are essential for learning and development.
Another study, published in 2015, found that as little as one hour of regular television viewing in kindergarten was associated with an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese in childhood—even when you adjusted for parental education levels and household income.
According to a University of Bristol study, children who spend more than two hours a day on screens also have an increased risk of psychological difficulties.
More recently, in a poll by the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, two-thirds of Australian parents admitted they fought with their children about turning off devices on a daily basis.
In September 2016 our family gave up the battle. And the truth is, we have never really had it again. In our house screens are now the exception rather than the rule. And to our surprise, nobody really misses them.
It’s more than a year since our screen-free month, and our children are now three and five. These days we use screens sparingly. My five year old sometimes uses my laptop to type up a story he is writing. My daughter likes using my iPhone to take photos or create text messages full of emojis for her Grandma who lives interstate. But they don't have screen time daily. My husband and I also try to stay off our computers, until the kids have gone to bed. And although we sometimes watch a family movie together on a Friday night, weeks go by without us ever turning the TV on for the kids.
For me, the best change is that I no longer rely on screens to get through the day. I now know if my children are tired, I can put music on and we can dance on the kitchen tiles together. If they are grumpy, I can tell them stories or read them poems or sing them songs. And if, after dinner, my daughter has trouble calming down before bed, then I can carry her out to the balcony so we can say goodnight to the moon. And if need be, I can rock her to sleep—under an ancient sky.