Did you know this is National Screen Free Week? How is that going for your family? I recently came back from visiting a friend with three children. Watching her try to control her 7 and 10 year old boys’ video game playing and her 13 year old daughter’s phone use gave me flashbacks of our family’s screen time battles.

My husband bought our oldest kids iPads when they were seven and five. I had a bad feeling about it – seeing how they already were begging to play on our phones. My husband said that they would use them for math games and watching movies on trips and it would be fine. My gut told me not to go that way but I didn’t want to argue. Besides everyone else was getting iPads for their kids.

One year later? We were involved in constant battles over screen time. The kids rushed through their homework, never wanted to play outside, read less and less and were always bored and complaining of having nothing to do if they couldn’t be on a screen. The overflowing playroom was hardly being used. Even my youngest was hooked by the time he was about four. Family time was full of arguing and whining. Even play-dates just meant bored kids asking to play video games or watch a movie. I finally realized that my older two had learned how to connect to wi-fi in their bedrooms and were staying up at night playing games or watching movies. By then they were 9 and 11. Their moods and focus were at an all time low. I noticed that increasingly the children became angry and irritable when I took the devices away or when interrupted while using them. I have since realized that all of these behaviors were signs of addiction.

I thought Minecraft was a sort of virtual Lego. What could be bad about that? According to Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked”, video games and social media employ all kinds of methods to keep us hooked on them such as Goals, Feedback, Progress, Cliffhangers, Escalation and Social Interaction. Mr. Alter writes that the average school child between the age of 8 and 18 spends 1/3 of his life sleeping, 1/3 at school and 1/3 engrossed in media; smart phones, tablets, TVs and laptops. Most kids spend more time communicating through screens than face to face.

My family was getting like that! I had, by this time, done hours of research not only into the effects of so much screen time on attention spans and on the developing brains of children, but also on the physiological effects of the microwave radiation they emit. Digital overload has been shown to impair a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth. The radiation from the devices has been linked to disorganization of the nervous system, cancer and infertility. The light they emit can disrupt circadian rhythms and induce a sort of constant jet-lag. That was enough!

We went cold turkey on the video games. The iPads got put away and only taken out to download movies before a trip. We switched off the wi-fi and hard-wired our computers. We also replaced our cordless phones for old-fashioned corded phones located in multiple places throughout the house. We were soon in a video game free, wi-fi free home.  I noticed my older son started reading non-stop for several months until we were finally able to coax him outside and get him interested in other things. Addiction specialists will tell you that the addictive behavior needs to be replaced. Reading was his fix and I was fine with that! Soon we were all sleeping better. The kids started reading more, playing outside, playing piano, taking up other instruments, drawing, knitting and finding things to do. Everyone’s focus and moods improved.

Yes, this was hard and we had ups and downs and our friends thought we were crazy but I relentlessly showed my kids the research and focused on why we needed to do this. My youngest is 9 and he is proud to not play video games. He never asks to play on my phone and is never bored and can play for hours by himself or with other children. He loves Lego, blocks, playing outside, walking the dog, playing with his pet turtle, building forts and reading. But mostly he plays imagination games of his own creation. He can engage his friends in play for hours. They only come to see me when they are hungry. Recently when we were at the seaside I watched him running and climbing and playing on his own. He was gesticulating and making chewing motions as he went by. I had to ask what was going on! “I am playing a game. I captured a giant sea squid and chopped off its tentacle and ate it”, he cried. Because he never uses a screen, I have a child who can sustain imaginary play for hours and is never bored. With this has come a deep love of nature – and a taste for sea monsters.

I had a good run of it for a few years but now my 15-year-old has a smart phone and the battle has begun again. He doesn’t really play video games (at least at home) but he is completely drawn in by social media and I feel like he is tethered to his texts. I always think he could be doing something amazing with his time instead: composing music, writing a book or skateboarding. Would Einstein have dreamt up the amazing thought experiments that lead to the theory of relativity if he was always distracted by a pinging smart phone? I insist that he docks his phone in the kitchen when he gets home from school and puts it in airplane mode. My 13 year old constantly reminds me that she is the perfect child – otherwise she would make my life miserable for not giving her a smart phone! I know it is hard for her but I also hear her playing piano and singing and I know she would be doing less of that if she had Snapchat. I plan to #RESIST! until high school.

So what is a parent to do?

At a recent talk by Adam Alter, a parent asked how to get kids on board with reducing screen time.

He said that they have learned from the anti-smoking campaigns that teens, especially, see the world from a “them” and “us” view point. So showing a teenager that these companies are using tactics to get us hooked and make money from us helps them understand what is happening and pull away. Make the media companies the “them” instead of the parents. I took my kids go to the talk because they need to hear this from someone other than me so we can be in the same camp: “us”. Mr. Alter also highly stressed the importance of spending screen free time in nature for breaking the addictive force of the devices.

But the absolute most important thing we can do as parents is to model the kind of behavior that we hope they will develop.

Some ideas are:

  • Never use a device at the table – at home or in a restaurant
  • Never text and drive
  • Dock your screens in the evening
  • Never have them in your bedrooms
  • Check emails before the kids get up, while they are at school or after they go to bed
  • Turn off the notifications on our phone so you are not tempted to respond to every ping
  • Establish device free times of day, like the first hours after school and the hour before bed

Manage your own addiction first and the kids will follow. Two experts at the Harvard School of Public health offer a free guide “Outsmarting the Smart Screens: A Parent’s Guide to the Tools That Are Here to Help”. One useful App they recommend is called Lockwork. It allows parents to control the times that kids are allowed to use their phones.

Be fearless and decisive and do what is best for your family!