In the newest Screen-Free Week blog post, author and mindfulness educator Erica Marcus provides a helpful guide for reflecting on our own screen habits. With Screen-Free Week less than a month away, let’s take some time to think about when we use tech and why. Read these seven great questions to ask yourself as we prepare to go screen-free this spring!
Taking time away from screens is an incredibly useful practice for noticing the impact of technology on our lives! That’s why I love the idea of Screen-Free Saturdays and an entire Screen-Free Week. It can help us realize some of the ways tech affects us that we can’t see when we are immersed in it. In my life, I try to regularly take time away from screens. That ranges from short moments throughout the day, like at dinner or right before bed, to day-long off-switches, to even longer stretches when I go on retreat.
In my book, Attention Hijacked: Using Mindfulness to Reclaim Your Brain from Tech, I explore how practicing mindful tech use can help us stay grounded in our values and aware of the impact of screen use on ourselves, others around us, and our environment. Mindfulness helps us approach our lives with curiosity and without judgment. We can start asking ourselves questions and really pay attention to the answers, honestly exploring how our tech use is adding to and subtracting from our lives. When we have this open and curious attention, we can course correct when our tech use takes us away from our values or wellness. We can also notice and appreciate the ways tech helps us show up in the world as we want to be.
So you might approach your week of unplugging as a giant science experiment, where you are the subject! Get out a journal and see if you can track, from day 1 to day 7, how not having your tech impacts your life. Here are some guiding questions to consider:
What do you do instead of tech? Read? Go outside? Stare at the wall?
When do you long for screen time? Are there certain times of day or things that happen that make you crave it?
What feelings draw you to your screen? Boredom? Stress? Excitement?
What do you crave doing when you are on screens? Social media? Video games? Work?
How does being off tech impact your mind? Do you feel clear-headed? More focused? Or more distracted?
How does being off tech impact your body? Do you find yourself more well-rested? Faster to recover from workouts?
How does being off tech impact your emotions? Do you feel FOMO? Do you feel freer?
I invite you to ask some of these questions of yourself as you undertake your tech-free week. Here are some of my findings from past screen-free experiences:
What do I do instead of tech? Two things: read and sleep. I read so much more! The little free libraries in my neighborhood can’t keep up with my demand when I am not streaming shows right up until bedtime. Also, I noticed that I go to bed earlier. Instead of giving my mind and body the rest it needed, I was stimulating it more with shows. I find that when I go to bed earlier, I wake up well-rested.
When do I long for screen time? I really crave tech right when I get home from school and at the end of the night. Replacement activities—like tea, yoga, a walk, or reading in bed—helps with that yearning for tech.
What feelings draw me to my screen? For me, it is often a sense of exhaustion or stress. Sometimes, instead of caring for myself in those moments, I turn towards distraction. I really noticed that when I had nothing to impulsively grab for.
What do I crave doing when I’m on there? I tend to be pulled by streaming shows, reels on Instagram, and/or reading the news. I look for mindless activities.
How does being off tech impact my mind? Over time, I notice more clear- mindedness. Maybe it is the extra sleep, but I think it also has to do with having less extraneous clutter from the stories I take in on social media. Taking the screens away feels like airing out my mind: I emerge refreshed.
How does being off tech impact my body? After limiting my tech use, my body feels rested. I also noticed I am more ready to get out of bed in the morning, which is HUGE.
How does being off tech impact my emotions? At first, it is always a struggle to not turn to my phone. I miss it! But after a while, once I have new routines, I really appreciate the shift.
Moments away from screens remind me that I have choice in what I do with my time and control over how I feel. When I go to bed earlier because I’m not streaming shows, it can change the whole feeling of the next day. When I actually take time to care for difficult emotions rather than distract myself from them, I am able to more easily let them go. While I am not going to eliminate tech completely, I now have a better understanding of how I use it and some alternatives to replace habitual use.
What does your investigation reveal? What changes might you make because of what you learned? You have the opportunity to reset and decide how you want to use tech–instead of simply letting tech control you!
About the Author
Erica Marcus has spent over fifteen years learning from the teens she works with as a classroom teacher, mindfulness educator/director, and a wilderness youth therapy field guide. She is based in Portland, Maine.
In this op-ed, Screen-Free Week Coordinator Lucy Kidwell reminds us that that universities have a part to play in digital wellness –some screen-time is structural. As students, it’s tempting to blame ourselves for struggles with tech, but let’s give each other some grace!
When we think about the phrase “screen time,” our minds often immediately go to childhood: how many hours should my preschooler be watching TV? Can my teen handle a smartphone? Should screens be allowed in schools? In fact, as coordinator of the annual Screen-Free Week celebration, much of my role is dedicated to distributing resources to young families with questions like these. And, of course they ask! These concerns are especially relevant, as developing minds are uniquely susceptible to the influence of screens.
However, with college-age mental health issues worse than ever before and time spent in nature rapidly decreasing, the screen time discussion is in desperate need of expansion.
On college campuses, the link between poor mental health and excessive screen use is undeniable. A Healthy Minds Network 2020 survey divulged that two-thirds of college students struggled with loneliness, with a whopping 83 percent indicating that poor mental health detracted from their academic performance. This is notable, as these higher instances of depression and anxiety–as well as tense relationships, eye strain, poor sleep, and physical health complications–are directly tied to excessive screen time. And of course, the more time students spend on screens, the less time they spend outdoors, directly impacting mental health, happiness, and cognition and our likelihood to protect the environment.
One Stanford University Study revealed that during an average week of in-person classes, screen use made up 50.2% of a student’s waking hours–increasing to a scary 77.6% during the pandemic. This startling statistic, coupled with the fact that over half of students use their devices for more than 50 hours a week, indicates a problem that demands some creative reimagining.
Often, with regards to my age group, excessive screen time or media addiction is painted as an individual problem…a problem of self-control or moral failure. How many times have we heard the familiar complaints that “My daughter, a college freshman, can’t get off her phone!” or “I just wish I could stop scrolling and finish this paper…” There is a sort of latent assumption that when children age into their twenties and move away, their screen-time problems become just that–ours.
But as a current college senior who joined the Zoom ranks of the pandemic and came of age just as screen-use skyrocketed, I believe otherwise. Bleary-eyed, Zoom-fatigued, and stuck indoors, I argue that excessive screen use–especially among university students–is a larger, more systemic issue. And it is an issue that universities must account for.
The fact that universities rely on online communication for everything is an uncontested reality. Weekly newsletters, assignment notifications, club meetings, and even class readings are all posted online, easily accessed by a couple of clicks. Not to mention that the pandemic opened a Pandora’s Box of recorded lectures and Zoom meetings, making it even easier (and more convenient) to stay inside. Even after the era of pandemic shutdowns, students shuffle from windowless classrooms to stare at slideshows–laptops open all the while–to the fluorescent lights of libraries to do homework (on computers, of course).
This issue is often exacerbated for those in urban areas, whose integration with the outdoors and access to screen-free spaces is even more limited. Not to mention the well-established racial and class divide inherent to the screen-time discussion, with lower-income children and BIPOC spending much more time on screens than white or middle-income children. Clearly, this issue has implications for equity work across countless intersectional spaces, demanding consideration at the university-policy level.
In my experience, all of these screen-heavy practices reduce intentional, embodied time–time rooted in space and place, in the natural world and human connection. I have lost track of how many hikes in my beautiful backyard of Southern Indiana were interrupted by a reminder of an upcoming assignment or an email from a professor. And of course, Zoom meetings proved deeply necessary during the pandemic, but you miss out on the soft, human subtleties revealed in the presence of another person. The eye-contact, body language, and quasi intimacy of sharing physical spaces has gradually disappeared.
The situation is far from hopeless, however. Universities can implement a variety of changes to ameliorate this issue if they are willing to listen to the concerns of students. Steps can be taken to reduce email clutter and unnecessary notifications, physically post announcements in central areas, host classes outside, and prioritize the use of books and hand-written assignments–even if they prove clunky or inconvenient. I know that I like taking a book outside and reading on a nice day, but I would rather not squint at my laptop in the sun.
It may sound simple, but refusing to operate from the assumption that screen-time is a MUST for college students would be a great step forward. Finally, universities can prove that they take digital wellness–and thus, student mental health–seriously by participating in Screen-Free Week, distributing digital detox resources, increasing their capacity for accessible mental health services (with professionals in tech addiction), and even forming student advisory boards to discuss digital wellness issues.
I know that I am blessed to have access to a wonderful and enriching university education; countless colleges clearly value their students, my alma mater included. Hopefully, this practice of screen time self-care will produce ripple effects, impacting the most pressing issues of our age. Without the artificial separation of screens and their constant demands on our attention, we can become more intentional, involved, and interconnected as students and young professionals. Perhaps caring for our world also looks a lot like caring for ourselves…starting with the screen time problem.
About the Author
Lucy Kidwell serves as the Screen-Free Week Coordinator at Fairplay and co-chair of the Action Network’s Interfaith Work Group. She also studies Religion and International Law at Indiana University. Lucy loves reading, rock climbing, and folk dancing –come say hi!
It is so easy to forget that Screen-Free Week isn’t just for kids! It’s a time of intention, rest, and creativity for all, something that Lauren Koslow reminds us in her lovely post on what going screen-free means for her –not only as a parent, but as a librarian, friend, and activist as well.
I have been celebrating Screen-free Week since before parenthood, and even as my life incorporates an impressionable child who wasn’t there before, I still advocate for any adult participating.
My disclaimer is that I do try to keep a low-tech life year-round, as someone who intentionally does not have a smartphone…because I unintentionally seem to have a predisposition to tech addiction, as I imagine many well-functioning adults these days do. A wealth is being written on the subject of digital time-sucks and attention-destroyers, from The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (which opened my eyes a dozen years ago) to new release Stolen Focus by Johann Hari (which is at the top of my TBR list).
Each year as Screen-Free Week approaches, this librarian makes a book display, this parent searches online (in advance) for special local happenings, and this friend makes a list of 30 people to whom I will write (for the overlapping Letter-Writing Month). The spring weather helps. The manner in which I have lost too much precious time scrolling through winter helps. And the biggest help is this sense of making a public commitment in a community of like-minded people. It truly is a fun challenge!
During Screen-Free Week, I do myriad mundane things that, without technology at the helm, have me being more satisfied, creative, and connected–socially and naturally. Because of this dedicated event, when I have the impulse to look something up online, regardless of how fast and efficient I may be, I pause to remember the pledge and to realize that it’s never just one thing with a device.
And after Screen-Free Week, I am reset. I can appreciate the real lived experience of being unplugged (save for that which is mandated by work). I can make calls to friends with ease, not anxiety, because now it has not been months since we last spoke. I can better relish the time with my daughter without being distracted, and I have a light heart with which to join in her imaginary play. I realize that life is better without being constantly connected to digital chatter and information overload. And each year, I get better at making this realization–informing how I spend my time–last.
About the Author
Lauren Read Koslow is a librarian, parent, activist, and urbanist who calls Baltimore home. Aiming to do most things with care and intention, she has been wary of following trends for trends’ sake. She has commemorated Screen-Free Week since 2015 and is excited to further involve her child.
As Screen-Free Week returns this year, it’s important to recognize that we all celebrate a little differently. What works for one family will not always work for all, a reality that guest blogger Jennifer highlights in her beautiful post about millennial parenting in a media-saturated world.
It’s 9:10pm as I watch my boys play in their room. My 8-year-old assembles intricate worlds, one Lego at a time, while my 5-year-old climbs and contorts himself through the jungle gym he built with large plastic tubes. I enjoy these moments, watching them in their element. In a world of iPhones, iPads, and millionaire child YouTube stars, our screen-free family is an anomaly. There are no Saturday morning cartoons here. No video games for completing their homeschool work. We don’t do family movie nights on Friday evenings. No tablets in the car to pass the time.
Depending on where you fall on the technology spectrum, you may view this as a form of strict, extreme parenting and feel sorry for my kids. You might think I’m looking for some kind of bragging rights or mommy awards. Or maybe you think I’ve unlocked a magical power and long for a more low-tech life yourself, if only you had more time or help.
But really, we’re none of these things. We’re just… us.
I spent the first several years of my parenting journey filled with self doubt and exhaustion. If you’re a parent of young children, I’m going to guess you experienced this as well. Are they sleeping enough? Eating enough? Is their poop the right color? (If you’ve spent any time in parenting groups, I bet you’ve even seen the pictures that go along with this question.) When did everyone else’s baby crawl? At what age did yours start reading? Is it important to sign them up for sports? The list of questions and comparisons goes on and on and on. But at the core of each is a fundamental need to know–am I doing this right? Am I an okay parent?
I believe our current generation of young parents has the unique predicament of parenting without a tribe while simultaneously striving to greatly differentiate their parenting choices from the previous generation. This puts us at a particular disadvantage. Not only do we lack adequate support, but for many of us, we can’t even trust the support we do have. Only a generation ago, people put babies to bed on their stomachs and smoked in the house and spanked and told their kids to suppress their emotions. How the hell are we supposed to know what to do when we, as a generation, are striving to parent, alone, amidst a massive paradigm shift to authoritative, warm, and connected parenting? Studies show that millennials value family and are passionate about social change. I guess now that a ton of us are in therapy from our own childhoods, we face the task of not being the source of our own kids’ future therapy bills, and we take it pretty seriously. Heavy stuff.
That’s where Google comes in. And social media. A recent study found that 90% of millennial parents seek parenting advice on social media platforms, and a third of moms report using online parenting platforms on a daily basis. On the one hand, I’m super thankful that I can turn directly to the CDC when I need to know which cleaners kill the norovirus after my kid pukes all over the couch. And I’ve gotten enough healthy but quick but still cheap but somehow kid-friendly recipes bookmarked to last a decade without repeating a meal.
On the other hand, the internet is also full of millions of people whose houses, spouses, jobs, and vacations are nicer than yours. There is and probably always will be no shortage of people who don’t like the way you live your life–and the way you parent your kids. It doesn’t even have to be because you’re doing something wrong. People will jump at the chance to critique you for doing something too well. I once saw a woman post a picture of some waffles. She said she was excited because she made whole wheat waffles for her kids for the first time and was happy that they turned out well. Soon there were hundreds of comments mocking her and her poor waffles. She was happy with her accomplishment, and the group decided that she and her waffles must be knocked off their shiny pedestal. I once made the mistake of answering a question about how high our toddlers could count. My oldest son is autistic and hyperlexic, and his number was notably higher than the others. The hive did not like this.
Once upon a time in human history, we maintained cohesive, homogenous cultures. Thanks to modern technology and cultural diffusion, we are now exposed to more differences and lifestyles than ever before. Yet we’re still wired to perceive differences in others as a potential threat. We’re also wired to enforce social norms to prevent chaos and promote unity and equity. I’ve noticed this play out in two ways that are particularly common amongst fellow parents– criticism and judgment for not being good enough, and criticism and judgment for being perceived as acting better than others. It seems we don’t readily approve of outliers. So while we’re turning to peers more than previous generations, we’re turning against each other in an effort to protect our own ideals, values, and identities.
I’ve seen parents reach out for support and be criticized about their messy house in the background of a shared photo. I’ve seen others ask for help regarding something in their home and get called out for “humble bragging” because the house in question happened to be too clean. Why? Because it makes people feel good to point out that someone else’s house is dirtier than theirs. And it reassures people if they can assign nefarious motives to the person with a cleaner house. It’s that old self-doubt creeping in, driving comparisons to those around us. It reminds me of an older study I once read about, where people tended to identify as middle class regardless of how high or low their income actually was. I guess deep down, we’re all asking, “Am I…normal?”
So what does any of this have to do with my low-tech parenting choices? Well, when children in the US spend an average of seven hours a day in front of a screen, my family is an obvious outlier. Kids’ clothing is adorned with Disney and Marvel characters. The dental hygienist asks whether they want the Paw Patrol or Spongebob toothbrush. The little boy down the street cuts playtime short to go home and play with his Nintendo Switch. It’s everywhere around us, all the time, making me acutely aware of how weird we are by contrast.
I’ve received no shortage of input regarding our family’s lifestyle, in the form of direct feedback and indirect, negative opinions. I’ve heard it all. Screen-free families are like cults. They aren’t living in reality. Their kids are just going to rebel when they get older. They are stifling their children and preventing them from obtaining successful careers in the ubiquitous tech industries that drive our modern world. Screen use is a great way to teach kids to read or develop hand-eye coordination. Then there’s the pull to knock these parents down. Who do they think they are? They think they’re so much better than everyone else. It’s not like you get a medal for that. It’s not like everyone has the privilege to avoid screens.
All of these things and none of these things are true. They’re just statements. Their level of truth depends on your own vantage point. As I mentioned before, I spent the first several years as a parent continuously questioning my decisions. I was filled with self-doubt, and all of these opinions made me question myself more. I asked therapists, and I turned to my husband. Am I doing this right? Am I an okay parent? I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but one day I noticed that the chatter started to fade. I let the daily ins and outs of parenting my own precious children shape my views more, and the opinions of others less. I started to trust my own inner compass to guide me based on what I saw directly in front of me and felt within me. Little by little, “Am I doing this right? Will others approve?” turned into, “Are my kids happy, healthy, and thriving? Am I fostering their unique talents and giving them room to grow and explore? Does this feel right?”
The answer to that is, absolutely! Or at least a good 95% of the time.
My kids are amazing. And I’m not just saying that because I spent days in labor between the two of them. I think they’re objectively incredible humans. And they aren’t missing out on anything. Instead of watching TV, they read books, build interesting contraptions, draw pictures, and listen to music. They spend copious amounts of time playing outside, talking to neighbors, digging snow tunnels, or playing baseball. Normal kid stuff. Not at all cult-like. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the words, “Mom, I’m bored” even one time.
What looks extreme to one family is just the norm in our house. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all peaches and cream. Sometimes (often) they make massive messes and fight like feuding gang members. But we do our best to clean up together as a family. And we place the utmost importance on emotional health and learning to express our needs and work through conflict while caring for each other. I’m not saying you can’t do that if you spend lots of time in front of the TV. But I do feel that a screen-free life has opened up more room for the things we personally value the most. And I’m extremely grateful for that.
And I’m proud of those of you who do what you love and value too, even if it looks a little weird to others. So for those of you who refuse to buy plastic toys, or sell all your worldly possessions and live in a tiny RV with six kids and two dogs and travel the country, or bring your kids to social justice marches, or only feed your kids organic food you grew together in your garden, or nurse your kid until the age of eight, or homeschool so you can focus on your religion/practice unschooling/start a family death metal band. All I have to say is… Go little rock star. Do you. Because no one can bring the unique light you have to offer this world and your children except for you.
Suddenly, when I look to my own children for the answers, I can see this all so clearly. I could offer up a rebuttal to the criticisms of screen-free parenting mentioned above–pull up data and professional recommendations–but there’s no need. Our journey is our own. We are inundated with data and opinions today to the point of decision paralysis, but no resource is a match for your own inner voice. There are billions of us; we’re not all going to look the same. We’re all going to be too much or not enough for some people around us no matter what we do, so we might as well enjoy being judged from the serenity of our authentic path. My own voice of reason might not work for your kids. But as I watch these amazing beings play beside me, I know, without a doubt, that we’re on the right track.
We’re doing things a little differently than others–but we’re doing things exactly like us–and that’s a beautiful thing.
About the Author
Jennifer is a homeschooling mom of two active boys in Michigan. She loves to read non-fiction, cook plant-based meals, and do yoga. In her spare time, she and her family enjoy exploring new trails and going camping.
Changing children’s screen habits can be a challenge for both kids and parents. That’s why we created “7 Parent-Tested Tips to Unplug and Play,” strategies for getting young kids to spend less time with screens from real parents who have done it and noticed a world of difference.
Want the children in your life to spend more time playing and less time with screens? CCFC’s great new handout is for you. Clear, concise, and evidence-based, our Healthy Kids in a Digital World brochure is packed with tips, facts, and screen-free activities—and it’s free!