Screen-free week: Where do you draw the line?

Screen-Free Week is a campaign each year to raise awareness about reducing screen time for kids and connecting them with life offline. But, should screen-free mean the same thing to every family?

By , Correspondent

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    Buckeye School of the Arts third-graders, from left, Ryan Phan-Fong, Caden Pero, and Bronte Palmer work on their ipads on April 28.
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Screen-Free Week, held this year May 5-11, is halfway done, and I would say our household is managing just fine.

That's mainly because we have a toddler on the loose who can't manage to sit still for more that two minutes, let alone the length of any iPad game or cartoon. Other than me writing on the computer, the phone and iPad are usually tucked away, despite my son's valiant efforts to climb up to wherever I have stashed them and try to figure out my pass codes.

The Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood in Boston, Mass., sponsors Screen-Free Week, describing it as, "The international celebration where children, families, schools, and communities spend seven days turning OFF digital entertainment and turning ON life! It’s a time to unplug and play, read, daydream, create, explore nature, and spend time with family and friends."

Recommended: 12 ways to be a less distracted parent

The group makes is clear that "work and school assignments" still count as acceptable screen-time, and that distinction raises an important question – can I consider our household screen-free when realistically, we still sit in front of screens multiple hours per week?

I think so, and here's why. Screen-free is a term that needs to be defined and modified to fit each person and family. If you look at an average 24-hour period in our home, five hours or so is spent in front of screens each day. It's unavoidable. I work from the home, and we enjoy an occasional TV show or movie after our son goes to bed and on the weekends.

And while most of my screen time fits into the "work and school assignment" disclaimer, that doesn't mean I shut off everything the moment I'm done with work. It's much more fluid than that.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "Today's children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices." 

Yes, that number seems high, and yes, we need to build structure around our screens, but it has to be defined by families, and guided – not dictated – by specialists. 

The standard by which I define how much the screens need to go away is based on a threshold, reached when the focus of our family interactions become centered around the devices and not each other. My son does realize that my devices clamor for my attention often as much as he does, and so I do make sure he sees me picking him up instead of the phone.

For our family, a majority of our time together is spent outdoors, or wrestling with our son in a play room with only a radio to add music to our playdates.  

That said, we don't hesitate to put on the TV for sports playoff games, or jump on Skype or FaceTime with family members who live far away. And when that puts my son over the recommended zero hours that the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests for children under 2, then so be it.

I still claim our house to be appropriately "screen-free" based on our own family's needs. We use screens when they make sense, we put them down when we need to connect to each other, and we leave them behind entirely when we are with the most important people in the world.

But Screen-Free Week does serve as a valuable prod to reflection – a reality check. Am I subject to screen-time creep? Am I really putting down the phone or iPad when my son needs attention? Is our screen time truly in accord with our family's values?

For instance, if you have to visit Pinterest to print out a chart to keep track of your child's screen time, it might be time for you to step away from Pinterest and take your kid to the park.

We as adults have to first define our own healthy screen habits, and share those with our kids. And for me, establishing those habits doesn't revolve around a certain number of hours.

The most shared item in my Facebook newsfeed in the last day was the video "Look Up" from spoken word artist Gary Turk, which has been viewed more than 27 million times since it was posted April 25. His primary message: we spend so much time online and on what we consider "social" media, and yet, we often feel more alone than ever. He offers a poetic plea for us to back away from the screen.

Ironically, after posting the video, many friends said they would cut back on their Facebook time. So for your sake, Mr. Turk, may your video be some of the only screen time people get as they continue to wrestle with their own definitions of what it means to live screen-free.

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