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What Happens When Kids Go Screenless for a Day

These kids today, right? They walk about with their YouTubes and their YikYak, and their FaceSpace; glued to the screens like a surgeon studying a CT scan. As if their special little devices hold all the answers to their existential problems.

Come to think of it—some adults today, right? We cling to our smartphones for our daily doses of news (and impending anxiety), music, games, and social stimulation. Subconsciously, we know that not breaking with these habits can lead to self-doubt, depression, and anxiety. We play mindless games or mind-games to idly pass time that would be best spent working on projects or interacting more meaningfully with people. If a person spent the nine hours average screen time a day on say, Brazilian Jui-Jitsu, they’d reach black belt level status in less than a year. That’s how much time we waste.

Why Kids Spend So Much Time Logged On

It isn’t just adults with desk jobs. Kids are in front of screens at schools for homework and projects; they are checking emails and apps connecting them with coaches, teachers, and classmates; and they are trying to decompress with, you guessed it, time alone with their phone. We argue that it can’t be all bad. After all, you wouldn’t want them to get behind the other schools would you? Plus, districts are pushing teachers to use less paper so…what are the other options?

How Screens Affect the Teenage Mind

Time Magazine published an article cited a Preventive Medicine Report on what happens when kids are exposed to seven or more hours of screen time a day. Researchers Jean M. Twenge (San Diego State University) and William Keith Campbell (The University of Georgia) studied over 40,000 kids aged 2-17 on exposure and use of screen-based media.

What the Researchers Found

  • More hours of screen time are associated with lower well-being in ages 2 to 17
  • High users show less curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability
  • Twice as many high (vs. low) users of screens had an anxiety or depression diagnosis
  • Non-users and low users did not differ in well-being
  • Associations with well-being were larger for adolescents than for children

In essence, the research shows that kids who engage in more screen time experience lower self-esteem and higher anxiety and depression. The results of the group study make sense but what does it look like from a teenager’s perspective?

Every year, for my college credit composition class for high school students, we read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and fall down the rabbit hole of Easter eggs in ’80s and ’90s pop culture in movies and gaming. The students enjoy geeking out on things like Zork, Space Invaders, and John Hughes film favorites. Once they come out of the thicket, I ask them to leave all the childish things behind as we delve into Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

Screenless, is an assignment I put upon this year’s students when I could tell they were having trouble unplugging and delving into stories where nature and self awareness take are key topics. If I’m honest, after a long winter indoors, getting my head out of a virtual space was a personal experiment for me too.

What Happened When My Students Went Screenless

In reading the first journal entry from a student, the word, “shenanigans” came up a lot. I had the thought that maybe phones were actually keeping kids out of trouble or—at least—from punching each other in the arm. One group admitted that in lieu of not having their phones at a restaurant, they started playing around with and mangling salt shakers, red pepper flake shakers, and, I assume, the sanity of a hapless employee. This same group lounged in plastic chairs in Walmart and later got a little too serious about a Monopoly game.

Other kids in the experiment got into deeper conversations with each other. They baked cookies, they laughed, they read. Another group went roller skating and took a Polaroid camera. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. They lost their friend in a store without a way to text her or Snapchat. If I had been there, I would have recommended the embarrassment of a paging someone over the store’s audio system.

For some, the time without their devices was unsettling. Students didn’t know how to set or didn’t have access to an alarm clock so they relied on parents to wake them up. Two students thought the amount of hours in the day seemed too long and so took naps or worked out to pass the time. A couple kids reported that they felt lonely as all their other relatives were on phones while they were left with no one to interact with.

Overall, the students seemed to enjoy the assignment and many promised to at least try to reduce their time staring at a screen. I’m not holding them to any promises.

On Reducing, but Not Eliminating Screen Time

Screen time isn’t all bad. In recent years, researchers are seeing a correlation between the advent of social media and dropping teen pregnancy rates. For teens who need social support, there are places where they are welcome online and many of these online spaces are safe. We already know the job market value of being technologically savvy in our modern world and as students are required to be comfortable with computers in school and work, it would be perhaps inadvisable to set little Johnny up with pen and paper for his papers and presentations while his peers have Google Docs and Prezi.

Kids can benefit from parents setting limits on phone time and television time. There could be a basket in the house to hold the phones of all the family members or better yet, a lockbox. If kids and parents could shut down their phones immediately after returning home from school or work, they’d be forced to find something else to do with their time. Perhaps to check in with one another or plan for the week. We could all take a page from the Mormon playbook and have a mandatory family night full of board games and conversation and similarly, a day during the week when no purchases are made. On Sunday, check local activities and plan your assault on screen time. My husband and I recently found out that a local restaurant has a bingo game on the same night that kids eat for 99 cents so we have one night taken care of.

What I’m Taking Out of This Lesson

For me, technology is necessary for my job and at least one of my hobbies. A platform like WordPress gives me a place to put my thoughts and to interact with like-minded individuals, and to form a community of ideas. Plus, their penmanship is better than mine.

What I can reduce is my nonworking time. I check news in the mornings but I get very little out of the experience. I have a twitch response to boredom and my iPhone Screen Time report has logged 56 total times I’ve picked up my phone today to open and view something. This isn’t even considering the time I’ve spent on the iPad reading articles or on the computer right now doing research.

This summer, when school is out and my classroom is closed, I plan to spend fewer than ten hours a week on non-work-related screen time. Maybe, once I had a handle on that, I can develop a plan to reduce my screen time at work.

Actionable Items for Going Screenless

  • Pick a day of the week to go screenless as a family
  • Have a drop box where the phones go after school, require phones to be put on airplane mode. Then set a timer for an hour or two
  • Find a non-electronic activity to do together during the week
  • Stop checking your phone or computer in the morning; eliminating the standard
  • Set a goal for bringing down your on-screen hours. Check your analytics if your phone has one and plan a reduction from there. If you don’t have an iOS device, try the app ZenScreen
  • Eat meals without your phone present
  • If you are struggling to get kids to get off their apps, try Boomerang Parental Control. It works for Android or iOS and it cost about $31 a year for a family plan

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