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30 Days to Less Screen Time…and More Family Life

I recently came to the sudden and shocking realization that I don’t know what I enjoy outside of my computer screen any more. I’ve been depressed, filled with anxiety and frankly, disassociated.

Then I looked around my house. I saw my daughter wrapped up in Minecraft, chatting on Skype. I saw my son watching an episode of Pokémon that I know he had seen at least a dozen times. My husband was on yet another play-through of Mass Effect. A quick survey of my household brought to light the fact that we own sixteen Internet-capable devices. That’s four per person.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to change the WiFi password. We did change the WiFi password. There was much indignation and even a few tears shed.

Skype Is Not Interaction

A recent study by UCLA  suggests that “Children’s social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media.”

I’m starting to see this in my children, and I’m feeling it within myself. In order to live and function in this world, interaction and empathy with others is crucial. Children learn by doing. Watching kids play together in a movie is not a substitute for social interaction. Talking on Skype introduces a level of anonymity  that allows harsh words to be spoken and glossed over.

I took it upon myself to discuss the idea of cutting back on screens with my family. My first talk was with my husband. He gave me that sidelong look of skepticism, but then agreed that we should be doing something about the household screen dependence. My next talk was with my ten-year-old daughter. She gasped, mortified that I’d take away her socialization avenue. My nine-year-old son didn’t have a response for me beyond a blank stare.

The realization set in; a family-oriented, rah-rah, let’s-do-this screen challenge isn’t going to happen. My family will smile and nod and Mom’s half-baked idea, and then they’ll go right back to their games and shows. That isn’t stopping me.

Encouraging Family Play Time with Tweens

My children are on the cusp of their tween years. Much of what once worked is no longer effective; bribes, persuasion, promises and threats just don’t carry the weight that they used to. Tweens and teens are on a constant and tireless search for autonomy and self-reliance.  The trick, I realized, is to coax my children from behind the glass while making them believe it was their idea and decision.

But how?

It dawned on me – quite literally – at 4:30 AM. Because: insomnia.

Last week, I started one of those 30-day fitness challenges, where each day introduces a gradual increase of crunches, push-ups, dreaded planks, squats, running, etc. The first day seems almost pointless, with its 10 minutes of calisthenics and tiny bit of cardio. But each increase builds both fitness and confidence.

In these challenges, every few days is a day of rest. You revert to your old ways and indulge your inner sloth.

At the end of 30 days, you are stronger, fitter and healthier. You look back over those 30 days, and you’ve exercised more often than not.

Why not do the same for the screen challenge?

How, you ask, does this make the pre-teen believe he is self-driven in his quest to bust the screen time? It doesn’t. That’s where the 4:30 AM ah-hah moment comes in.

The night before, as I was squatting away with my exercise ball, my son watched with interest. He asked if he could do some squats, too. I set him up against the wall with the exercise ball, and helped him get his posture right. He did a set of squats. Then we went on to do crunches, push-ups and planks together.

I was off the screen and doing something that piqued my son’s interest. By accepting his desire to participate, we spent time exercising together.

That’s when I realized the path my experiment needs to follow; my children must be drawn off the screen by enticing, exciting activities that interest them more than what’s flickering across their devices. My son’s interests include sports, games and Legos. My daughter is passionate about art and writing. Both of them love music. They are also in desperate need of lessons on how to truly play the Pokémon card game beyond their made-up rules so that they can participate in tournaments at ComiCon.

The 30 Day Screen Challenge

Introducing – The 30 Day Screen Challenge. That should be screen-free challenge, shouldn’t it? Or maybe screen-lite challenge. I know better than to assume we’ll go entirely screen-free for 30 days.

The fact that I need to plan this challenge out is somewhat depressing, but I’ve come up with this table for a month of decreased screen dependence. The kids will never see this schedule. I’m not going to tack it to a wall, nor will I mandate it as a plan.

Let’s be honest – pre-teens run in terror from planned family activities. However, if I sneak up on one of them with a Nerf gun and pop them in the shoulder, then it’s on! If I put on my swimsuit and go jump in the pool, I know they’ll follow.

This chart is my idea well. By setting it out ahead of time, I’m able to know what I’m doing before the day begins. I can prepare supplies so that we’re not spending those precious after-school hours with tons of setup.

I blame the necessity of this chart on my own schedule. Working while raising two children is draining; it sucks the creative life out of parents and children alike. By planning, we can simply do, rather than attempting to think up activities after a long day of work and school.


My workout time includes calisthenics, walking, bike rides, roller blading and maybe the occasional trip to the local recreation center for rock climbing. We live in a desert, and the hot season approaches rapidly. If the weekend days are cool enough, a hike on any one of our in-town mountain parks will substitute nicely.

The rest is all suggestion. It’s the last month of school. I know we’ll have some homework that might trump the fun. We need to put laundry away occasionally. Dinner always takes an excessive amount of time.

My scientific mind requires success metrics for this particular experiment. I don’t expect a screen-free life after 30 days, nor to even accomplish every single item charted. I’m hoping for a solid 85%, though. With any luck, the activities are interesting enough to attract the kids willingly.

By the end of the month, my hope is to have established some new habits and engrain a new idea of leisure, not just my children, but in my husband and myself as well. It’s time to take the reins back from the Internet and learn how to be social again. It’s time to find out what we really enjoy beyond the screen.

The Basics

Who: Myself, my husband and two unsuspecting children.

What: A 4-week challenge to decrease screen dependence and increase family connectedness and social interaction.

When: Starting Monday, May 4th (May the Fourth be with us… always).

Where: Our home, away from our TVs, computers, phones, e-Readers and gaming systems.

How: A set schedule, sheer force of will, and a little conniving.

Why: To build some better family habits!

Follow along. I’ll post some status updates throughout the experiment, and I promise to give a full assessment of the good, the bad and the ugly when it’s all over. I’m hoping for more good than bad (or ugly), but we are talking about breaking habits. The path isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

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