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Revealing Insights from Our 30 Day Family Screen Experiment

We made it!

After a full 30 days of screen challenge, I find myself reflecting back. There have been high and low points throughout the month. We didn’t have resounding success, nor did we fail. Overall, I’d call it a step in the right direction. As a family, we learned more than a few lessons.

The irony does not escape me – I’m writing this article on my computer. Screens are unavoidable in today’s society, especially for a software engineer/freelance writer such as myself. My kids are out of school for the summer, and they, too, have summer assignments that are mostly screen-based. My husband works in IT as well. We are a family of screen users.

However, our screens do not define us. The past month has reminded us of some facets of life that had faded from view: Our collective love of tabletop gaming; Our own back yard and the fun we have there; The joy of having friends over for visits.

It’s not that we purposefully sink into a screen routine and forget the rest of the world. After a month of making screen avoidance a habit, I’ve realized that reaching for a screen is easy. After long, hard days, the brain-numbing screen-dive fills the void between times of obligation.

But then, so do other activities. Forcing myself to fill those time gaps in other ways, I’ve realized the meaning we can add to our own life by simply choosing. Reading a book, listening to music, playing a board game or going for a swim – all of these activities lighten the spirit and bring joy.

But the path to this enlightenment has been bumpy.

Subtle Suggestion Breeds Subtle Resistance

Kids are little rebels by nature, and it’s especially true of pre-teens. If Mom thinks it’s cool, then it must be the lamest thing ever. If Dad wants to do X, then I must choose Y!

One night during our challenge, after dinner and playing in the pool, my son chose to go to bed rather than watch a movie with the rest of the family. He wanted to play on the Wii about halfway through the movie. I said no. He chose sleep instead.

We’ve had moments like this occasionally, particularly with my son. When he gets it into his mind that it’s time to go play a video game, my gentle coxing and encouragement toward alternatives causes him to rebel in equally indirect ways. There were no fits of rage or outright rebellion. He would just subtly, quietly choose to do anything other than what I’d suggested. This response was especially observed in the face of an activity that he didn’t actively choose.

The Best Response to Resistance is Inclusion

My pre-teens crave autonomy in decision-making when it comes to family activities. The most useful solution to resistance was to ask, “What would you like to do?” I did find that most of the time I had to follow it up with “…besides watching Pokémon.”

I realized pretty early on that my chart of activities didn’t sit well with my kids. Some of the ideas struck gold, and the kids came running to participate. Others were met with solid indifference. I had to be fluid, change the plan accordingly, and re-engage. Sometimes, it still didn’t work.

Allowing my kids to take turns choosing our activity helped engage them for longer periods of time. Insisting that they participate in each other’s choices also helped. If my daughter didn’t want to participate in the game my son chose, then she’d lose her next choice.

The Obvious Isn’t Obvious

Several studies over the last decade conclude that screen use prior to bed time affects sleep patterns in negative and harmful ways. For me, personally, when I game up to the point of sleep, I see little game visuals dancing in my mind when I close my eyes, and my dreams typically reflect whatever I had been playing.

The night after our ComiCon weekend, my husband observed that we all slept soundly and felt refreshed the entire time we were there. He surmised that our solid sleep could be related to the fact that each day, we did something that we truly enjoy besides sit behind screens.

My response was something like, “You think?!”

But truly, it comes down to each person coming to his own conclusion. My husband had the breakthrough. He realized how heavy screen-use affects us. He came to this conclusion on his own.

It wasn’t until then – a day after our challenge officially ended – that I had the “a-hah” moment. While subtle redirection and direct interaction are great, we all need to derive our meaning from facts. We need a why to support our what.

Teaching the Reasons Behind the Actions

We teach our children that healthy food makes healthy bodies. We instruct their minds, giving them access to a full-spectrum education. We engage them in extracurricular activities and take them to museums, plays, concerts and events to give them a sense of culture.

Over the course of the month, and prior, during my research, I educated myself by reading studies both for and against screen use. There are as many benefits to technology in the classroom as there are dangers like screen addiction and sleep disorders. The question is why aren’t we teaching our children the health factors in their screen use?

It’s important that we teach them what screen use can do to their minds and bodies. Beyond the screen challenge, my new task is educating my kids in why we participated in our challenge.

My goal is to raise critical thinkers. If I’m too covert about decreasing screen dependence, my children lack the benefit of learning the reasons behind the actions. They lose out on applying the knowledge for themselves, and they are robbed the benefit of drawing reasonable conclusions from facts and evidence. Moving forward, I will actively teach my children both the benefits and risks to screen use.

Balance is Key

Ask me how many times I actually got in a workout over the month.

The original idea of planned activities included time to exercise in an engaging manner that included the kids. I watched that hour of availability slip away every day as we managed homework, cooking dinner and setting up for whatever non-screen activity we had planned.

As a mom, when faced with insufficient time and resources, I immediately cut those parts of life that benefit me. Self-sacrifice: It’s what we do.

There were times during the month when I felt like our screen challenge had become a self-torture device. I found I didn’t want to engage with my family, because I’d robbed myself of every spare second.

Manage the Hours, But Be Flexible

My original plan included free days roughly once per week where we got to choose our own activities. This part of the plan turned out to be one of those great-in-theory aspects of the overall scheme.

Toward the end of the month, I found myself debating internally over what I had planned (I think it was painting with the kids) and what I wanted (a hot bath, a good book and a cup of tea). Thankfully, my husband helped me rationalize through the moment. We’d had a lot of solid family time throughout the week. Some days are harder than others. Sometimes you just have to take some time for yourself and not worry that they kids are defaulting to the screens.

Long story short, I settled for the bath and the book. The kids lived. I lived. All was right in the world.

Schedules are great, until they’re not. Don’t be afraid to change your plans.

The Little Victories Add Up to Big Success

As I wrote this article, my son came and asked me to help him make a new Pokémon deck. The kids both ask to play board games more often. My daughter expressed interest in using her summer time to paint a mural on her bedroom wall. My husband and I joined a local gaming group, and have some scheduled, face-to-face game nights out of the house with new friends. I, personally, have broken my Facebook addiction.

The month hasn’t all been hard lessons and head-scratching moments. We’ve made steps, if not strides, toward our path to decreased screen dependence.

Most importantly, we are consciously aware about where we want to take our path toward decreased screen use. As a family, we’ve asked ourselves hard questions and have listened with open minds for the truest answers we can find.

The Things I’d Change

There are a few things I’d do differently, if I started the challenge over right now.

  1. I’d include the kids at the onset and we would choose screen-alternative activities together. This is entirely antitheses to my original plan, but it ended up being how the month played out in the end.
  2. Free time would be by the hour, not by the day. Again, this is how it ended up in reality.
  3. I would take that time for myself more regularly. I’m not the only one who needs it; the kids benefit from alone time, too.

What Worked

There are several habits we’ve forged that I want to record for future reference. I don’t want to lose this new reality.

  1. We made a solid transition away from “If you don’t get off that screen I’m shutting off the Wi-Fi” to “Hey, why don’t you put on your swimsuit. It’s really nice outside!” It’s a much more peaceful reality.
  2. Sometimes, a decrease in screen dependence is a single phone call and invite away. Having friends over both entertains and enlivens everyone involved. More play days, more dinner dates, more face-to-face with friends. Count me in!
  3. When in doubt, leave the house. There were a few times when we killed the screen need by finding something to do away from home. We went ice skating, took a few walks and enjoyed the park.


In the beginning, I’d hoped for an 85% participation rate regarding my planned schedule. From the original article, I stated, “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.”

While it’s true that we didn’t hit that 85% mark, I’m confident that we have established new habits and engrained new ideas of leisure.

All four of us are thinking about better ways to spend our time, and we’re acting accordingly. In that respect, I assert that our screen challenge is a success. More importantly, I am confident that our new habits are strong enough to carry us through to a better future centered around family interaction.

photo credit: LiAndStudio via shutterstock

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