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The Tech Experiment

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Sep 3, 2020
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This article was written and provided by Dr Justin Coulson from Happy Families 

“Kids! We have an announcement. No limits on screens for this weekend!”

This was our friends’ announcement on a recent family weekend. An “experiment” if you will. Adam and Michelle needed a break. They felt like the whole family needed a break. So they did something they had never done before. They gave the kids unfettered access to their screens.

“From the minute we got into the car, we had peace and quiet”, Michelle told me. “The kids had their headphones in and were glued to their screens. And they just didn’t get off.”

Adam and Michelle had hired a cabin at a caravan park on the mid-north coast of NSW. The weather was overcast and wet, but the ocean was warm and the waves, small. It was perfect for the kids to swim and be outdoors. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.

“It was a disaster.” Adam described how he had to coerce the kids to leave the cabin to go for a walk, or a swim, or even to have a meal. “They were completely absorbed in their screens. It was like no one else existed. They completely forgot that they were hungry, thirsty, or that they even needed to go to the bathroom while they had their screens on.”

And sleep?

Michelle laughed out loud. “They were wrecks. They were up past midnight watching movies, texting friends, and playing games. And they were shocking when they woke up – so they got back onto their screens. It kind of numbed them, so when they were on their devices or staring at the telly, they weren’t at each other, which was kind of good.”

Was it a worthwhile experiment?

“We got lots of time together to talk” Adam quipped. “No, it was a disaster.”

“It felt like the weekend was wasted” Michelle admitted. “We had almost no family time. And even though it was great that Adam and I got time together, we really felt demotivated by the way it all became about the screens. There was just nothing from the kids. No feedback. Nothing. I had to tell them the deal was off on the last day because I just couldn’t handle how detached they were from everything.”

I asked how the children felt about the experiment. “Oh, they were pretty annoyed when we called it off”, said Adam. “But after a while they told us they could see how bad it was, and we enjoyed our last day together before we packed up and headed off.”

I asked them what they would do differently with regards to screen time in future. Their response:

“We created a list with the kids so they can make sure they’ve done all of these things before they have screen time – and so far it’s working. They seem to be enjoying life more, and they get screens in moderation once they’ve done other things that are more important.”

What’s on the list?

Hey kids, do you want some screen time? If yes, have you:

  • Played outside?
  • Spend time with a real person, face to face?
  • Done your chores?
  • Read a book?
  • Done some exercise (gone for a walk, or a ride, or been active in some way?)
  • Helped someone in the family?
  • Tidied your room?
  • Prepared things for school tomorrow?
  • Done your music practice?
  • Had a chat with your grandparents on the phone?
  • Done something creative?
  • Finished any projects or other schoolwork?
  • Baked or cooked something?
  • Taken a bath/shower?

Should kids do what’s on this list every day? Most parents wouldn’t require that everything be covered off. This may be less of a “checklist” and more a prompt for things children might do instead of stare at a screen. By engaging in these activities, children will be experiencing a far more “whole” childhood and doing more for their brain and body than a child who sits and stares at a screen. They’ll be more engaged in life, and screen time will be less interesting when they do things on this list.

I asked Adam and Michelle if they’d be taking screens on their next family getaway.

The reply was instant. “Uhhh, nope. No way!”

The following questions may be helpful in determining how to use technology well in your home*:

  1. What are the most positive screen and media experiences we have shared as a family? How can we encourage more of these experiences?
  2. When is it appropriate to use media and screens? When do we require screen-free time?
  3. What is our decision regarding the apps that our children will be allowed access to? And at what ages?
  4. How much screen time is reasonable? How will we encourage compliance?
  5. What exceptions to this plan might be reasonable?
  6. How can we set a positive and balanced example of technology use?

* These questions are taken from my new book, 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know. (2018, Harper Collins/ABC Books).

This article was provided with thanks from Happy Families