healthy living

The Everymom’s Guide to Eliminating Screen Time

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It doesn’t count if it’s educational, right?

Confession: I love television. No, really. I love television. I come from a long line of television lovers. Sitcoms in particular bring up happy memories for me. I grew up happily gathered with my parents and siblings around episodes of Cheers and Seinfeld, and then Everybody Loves Raymond. I could watch marathons of The Golden Girls and Frasier as a teenager, and as an adult I have seen every single episode of The Office and Parks and Recreation fifteen times over. I find my spirit animal in Midge Maisel, and get my motivation for cooking from The Great British Baking Show. My cell phone ringtone is Downton Abbey, and…okay. You get the picture. TV is a thing for me.

Another confession: I am the actual WORST at moderation. I. Just. Can’t. I am that mom who says “one more episode” and then checks on the kids seven episodes later. I am not afraid to admit to using the TV as an associate in-home childcare provider. Actually, it’s pretty embarrassing to admit that. But that’s life, right?

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Tiny boy, tiny screen.

And I know I don’t have to tell you about all the different sources telling us that screen time is bad for our kiddos. Every pediatrician, speech pathologist, and occupational therapist will tell you “please, reduce your kids’ screen time! PLEASE!!!” There are zillions of studies showing the negative effects of screen time on kids’ cognitive development, behavior, and vision. And I always tell myself, “this is it! This is the week! We are seriously doing less screen time this week, and going forward!” But something always comes up, and I always slide back on the screen time limits. I’m not going to tell you about the great functions computers have to limit screen time themselves. We have one such computer. My kiddos actually have a computer-controlled screen time limit of 30 minutes per day. The computer even controls what time they can log in and what time the computer goes to sleep. It’s a beautiful thing.

Enter my issue with moderation. We started a chore-incentive for our kids, with, you guessed it, screen time as the reward for jobs well done. You put away the laundry? 15 extra minutes for you! Emptied the dishwasher? Took our elderly neighbor’s trash to the street? Scrubbed the bathtub? Picked up sticks in the yard? Hooray! More screen time! And before I knew it, I was allowing 3 hours per day for my screen-addicted monsters. And that’s not all. Because I have three children using one computer, there was lots of fighting over whose turn it was and whether or not the other siblings could watch the current user’s play time. Have. Mercy. Don’t even get me started on what TV time was doing. The 30 minutes of TV time that bought me “peace” while I made dinner crept earlier and earlier and lasted longer and longer, until I had unwittingly allowed my squad to watch Paw Patrol unmitigated from the time we finished homeschool around lunchtime until time for dinner. Moderation and I are clearly at odds on the regular.

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Entranced by something. Probably Peppa Pig.

Then it happened. Something crazy and amazing and terrifying. I went to a lecture from a local doctor about toxins in our environment. This is a very normal thing for me to do. I’m the absolute definition of a crunchy mom. I make my own skin care, I feed my children all organic, I use cloth diapers and sustainable menstrual products. Most of these “limiting your exposure to toxicity” lectures are just exercises in confirmation for me, I’m not ashamed to admit it. But this particular lecture was different. This doctor talked about EMF exposure and its role in anxiety, depression, ADHD and other cognitive/behavioral issues in children. She told us about countries like France banning WiFi in nursery schools and elementary schools, because EMF exposure has been shown in research to disrupt calcium channel function, and calcium channels are responsible for transmission of neurons in our bodies, and is being studied for its relation to cancer, fertility issues, in addition to cognitive and behavior issues. He cited multiple studies that show “more research needs to be done,” but that “without question, calcium channel function is disrupted by EMF exposure, and the results of long-term EMF exposure are not yet known.” He talked about the fact that 1 in 6 children today are diagnosed with a learning disability or other cognitive/behavioral issue, and that we are in the highest levels of EMF exposure in human history. He mentioned that in much of the first world, “not proven dangerous” and “proven safe” are not the same thing, but somehow in the US, our stance is consistently “safe until proven dangerous.” As a person who does tend to choose to avoid unsafe or potentially unsafe things, this raised a flag for me, and I came home with a lot to think about.
I mean, I love wifi. Just like I love television. I admittedly have a serious screen addiction that is so hard for me to crack. I could remain glued to my phone all day if these children didn’t require my attention for their education. If I’m fasting from social media, I easily switch gears to PubMed or Food.com or Pinterest, or curating the perfect Amazon wishlist. I have serious problems. And even after reading literally dozens of articles confirming that, yes, wifi and EMF exposure has an impact on the nervous system, and no, we aren’t sure what that means because this research is fairly new, I have to confess I still couldn’t bring myself to turn it off. So I decided to do what I’ve just confessed to being terrible at- I decided to ease into it. That’s right. I decided we’d start by turning off wifi at night and eliminating all computer and TV time.

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Entranced this time by…a BOOK!!

Turning off the computer and TV was a crucial step in the WiFi elimination plan, see, because we don’t use cable- like so many people, almost everything we watch is streamed online. I inadvertently put myself on a cold-turkey tv-abstinence plan. And you guys, it has been AMAZING. True story. Even if you don’t buy into the throw-out-your-wifi-and-get-rid-of-the-microwave fanaticism that is my life, if you’re hoping to cut back on your kiddos’ screen time, the tv-free life may be more achievable and reasonable than you might like to believe. So here’s what it looked like in my house, over the first two weeks:

Day one: Kids wake up asking for TV time before school. Nope. We’re unplugging the TV. *tears* “For how long???” “What if we find a show we can all agree on?” “This is the WORST DAY EVER!!!!” *more tears* *doors slam* *kids demand new mother* Ahh. This is nice. Just like I expected. After school, more requests for tv. Nope. It’s unplugged. *more tears* *lots of stomping* *kids insist this family is a prison* I’m so glad I did this. I feel better already. We worked through so much drama that by dinner time, everyone was so tired of being mad at mom that they didn’t even nag me while I cooked. And after dinner we read more of Little House in the Big Woods, so it would seem that all was forgiven.

Day two: Kids wake up asking for TV time before school. Was thinking there would be a faster uptake on this information. Hmmm. “Nope. TV is unplugged. Not sure when we’ll plug it back in. Nope, you cannot have the remote. Nope, it’s not a power issue. It’s a mom-is-in-charge and you-guys-are-not-watching-TV issue”. *tears* *stomping* And then…they played together. They got the army men that belonged to Uncle Chris out of the toy closet and created a battle world. They played until school started, and then asked to play during every break from school work. Hmmm. Progress? Maybe? We made it to dinner with minimal requests, and none of those requests were accompanied with tears or stomping. Yes. Progress.

Day three: Kids do not come into my bedroom to alert me that they are awake. Kids are downstairs in the den playing with the army men and a set of toy dinosaurs. When I call them for school, they actually gather around the table and participate without asking for TV. What is happening? Cue Twilight Zone theme. These may not be my actual children. Remainder of the day consists of playing outside in the snow and coming in for hot chocolate. There is a movie requested to go with hot chocolate. Don’t cave, mama. This is the gateway for you. Stay strong. “Nope. Sorry guys. TV is unplugged.” They pout. And then…they go play with the Hot Wheels cars and a track they found in the closet. Hmmm. Am impressed. Perhaps we can do this after all.

Day four: Lots of snowfall overnight. Kids spend entire day sledding and taking breaks for school and hot chocolate with extra marshmallows. No TV requests whatsoever. I’m in the clear. *so happy*

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Getting to really love reading time.

Day five: Severe wind chill. Icy rain outside. Kids cannot play outside; requesting TV/family movie. Let’s do a movie. It would be fine. *NOPE! STAY STRONG! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! TV CANNOT COME BACK ON!* “Sorry, guys. Would you like to get some things from the basement to play with?” Hmmm. Kids think on this. Yes. They would like to find some toys they haven’t played with in a while. They find some outside toys and build an obstacle course. My den is a wreck. But they are playing, so not all is lost. Bullet: dodged.

Day eight: We’ve survived several days with no TV. Lots of questions to confirm this is in fact a long-term thing. Lots of whining about how there actually are good shows on. Some serious negotiating to get chances to watch Magic School Bus or Reading Rainbow since those are definitely “school shows.” Kids even suggest watching cooking shows since “those are how you learn, Mom.” Nope. Staying the course. No shows. No movies. We are breaking this addiction. 

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TV: not allowed. Couch acrobatics: definitely allowed.

Day twelve: I’ve done it. I’ve broken the cycle. We are now a no-TV family. So excited. Want to shout from rooftops. Consider selling TV and computer and all components thereof. Looking for mugs and t-shirts declaring me World’s Greatest Mom. Am champion of all things mom-ish.

Day fifteen: All is lost. Caved and watched Jurassic Park 3 with children at Kent’s request. Decided this does not count as is almost his birthday and is last time he will watch dinosaur movie as a three year old. *But. Also determined that this setback is NOT a redirection and course will proceed as originally charted. Yes. That is the plan.*

Day eighteen: Back on the horse. Even after the family dinosaur movie disaster, we survived and lived to fight another TV free day. In fact, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. The kids recognized that movie experience as a fun exception to an otherwise steadfast rule. I am champion again. YES!

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I could keep going with this exciting diary of my life, but you get the picture. Ultimately, in this test of eliminating computer and television time from our lives, I’ve discovered these things:

  1. My children have incredible imaginations. Like, incredible. I think they get this from me. They can spend hours together creating imaginary worlds and obstacle courses and inventions that solve problems you didn’t know the world had. And when they use those imaginations, they grow their ability to think for themselves. They can create solutions and direct themselves toward things that before would require direction from me. This is incredibly freeing.

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    He’s writing instructions for how to raise a dinosaur.
  2. They can entertain each other. My biggest fear in all of this was that I would have to become a cruise-director. I’m a lot of things, but cruise-director I am not. It took me six months just to decide to leave the house and join a homeschool group…I don’t have it in me to create experiences for my children. But they found a way. In the first two days, it was pretty rough, but after that my squad genuinely found ways to create games, pretend scenarios, and fun experiences together without my help.
  3. Boredom is not fatal. In fact, it’s the mother of all creativity. My squad has created new purposes for old board games, an imaginary world in our basement, an obstacle course in our den, a battle royale between three different factions of 40 year old army men, and a Grand Prix race course that spans all seven continents over the course of the four levels of our house.

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    Greatest free entertainment ever.
  4. The lack of TV has made them more interested in what we do as a family. They want to know why I use that tool to cut apples, how do I know when those leftovers are not good anymore, what days to I wash the sheets and how do we get them back on the beds, and why does the Instant Pot whistle. They offer to help more because it gives them something to do, and makes them feel like they’re on my team. And I find myself including them more because there are no other distractions to keep us apart. I find us having better conversations and fighting/begging them to cooperate an awful lot less- probably because we are just interacting an awful lot more. It’s a beautiful thing.
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I now have an endless supply of kitchen helpers.

Could I have done this gradually? Or stuck to a 30-minutes a day rule? Probably. But knowing myself…probably not with much success. Cold turkey just works for me. And this process? It’s literally the best quitting I’ve ever done in the history of ever. I really am ordering that World’s Greatest Mom mug for this one. Can you do it? This TV loving mom says, if you want to, mama, knock it out. You got this. It’s not as hard as it seems. And the benefits are extraordinary- regardless of your beliefs or relationship with wifi. I promise.

Cheers to less TV and more reality,

xoxo~

LWH

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