Why our daughters need Screen-Free Week

Why our daughters need Screen-Free Week

According to a recent CDC report, teen girls* today are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk, across all racial and ethnic groups.

As the parent of one, this has me deeply concerned.

I know all these problems aren’t solely caused by screen-time (I’m looking at you, pandemic), but there’s no denying it’s a factor exacerbating the situation. 

As The American Psychiatric Association notes, “there is a growing consensus that the decline in [teen] mental health may be linked to the increasing popularity of smartphones and social media.”

This is particularly true for girls and young women who spend a lot of time on appearance-based social media sites (like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.) As this article in The Atlantic explains:

Social media—particularly Instagram… “subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.”

So, what if, for young women (and young men, who are also struggling), Screen-Free Week wasn’t just about family game night, but something more?

What if you reframed this one week break from screens instead as a radical act of survival and self-care?

What would that look like?

It would mean starting your Screen-Free Week planning today.

(And also widening your frame of reference for “teen girls”—these conversations are appropriate for your middle schoolers, too. Death by suicide is the third leading cause of death in children ages 10–14.)

Talk about it

Start by having a conversation with your teen(s) about the CDC findings. (Most teens I’ve talked to never heard about it.)

Ask them…

  • Does this data track with their own experience?
  • Does this track with what they see and hear among their friends?
  • Ask them to share more about their experience.
  • Give them space to let pain into the light and examine it openly and empathetically, without judgment.

If you find that your teen in crisis right now, skip the rest of this post and seek immediate help by calling 988 or their doctor.

Identify the worst offenders

If your teen(s) is NOT in immediate crisis, ask them if there is a particular app, platform, or social network they find most problematic (most will be able to identify it in a heartbeat.)

Rather than just responding with, “Let’s delete it now!” (because many of them will un-delete it later), work together to brainstorm a triage plan for it.

How can you help them mitigate the damage it’s doing today?

  • Can they turn off notifications?
  • Can they unfollow some toxic accounts or contacts?
  • Can they follow a bunch of new accounts that will bring some light and love into their feed?

Coach them on how to create a new normal within the platform itself.

Brainstorm a plan

Lastly, talk about how you and your teen(s) can work together to create a Screen-Free Week game plan to inoculate some of this pain with some radical self-care.

Radical self-care is about more than bubble baths, meditation crystals, and merely taking a break. It’s about make big, perhaps unpopluar shifts in your life to get unstuck and out of immediate danger. 

  • If Instagram makes them feel fat, how can you spend Screen-Free Week helping them feel beautiful again?
  • If they feel like they’re never measuring up online, could you spend the week doing a family gratitude practice?
  • If they’re finding it all too much, can you take the week to help them set up alternate communication channels between your teen(s) and their friends in other, less triggering platforms?

Basically, customize the Screen-Free Week “cure” so it matches the existing wound.

As Debra Houry, CDC’s Chief Medical Officer and Deputy Director for Program and Science says,  

“High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. Our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive.”

That support starts with you. Let Screen-Free Week be your invitation to help your daughters(s) tackle the trauma and blaze a new trail. 

*The stats are even worse for teen girls who are Queer. More than half (52%) of LGBQ+ students recently experienced poor mental health and more than 1 in 5 (22%) attempted suicide in the past year.


There’s something kids actually love more than screens

There’s something kids actually love more than screens

What to do about all the young people on their phones, growing depressed, anxious…and worse?

Well, there’s an ancient plaything kids have loved forever (literally). It keeps them occupied for hours and can actually hold its own against TikTok.

It’s called “the world.”

Screen-Free Week is the perfect time to make an introduction: Kids, World. World, Kids.

Liberate the kids

If we liberate our children from all the time they’re spending online — if we give them back some free time and free play — they’ll have an alluring alternative to the couch. But without much chance to hang out with their friends in real life, unsupervised, the only place they can have fun and socialize freely is online.

That’s bad. My colleague and Let Grow co-founder Jonathan Haidt has chilling graphs that show childhood mental health  problems, and, I hate to write it, suicide spiking since 2012 – the year the smart phone became ubiquitous, even in the hands of teens and tweens.

The only way to get kids off social media is to come up with an alternative that’s even MORE fun. Fortunately, that’s what play and exploration ARE…when kids get to do them.

Playing is what we’re meant to do

It may feel like kids prefer the virtual world to the real one. But when a 2010 survey by IKEA asked them whether they prefer playing with friends or playing online, 89% chose playing with friends. And they were online when they took the survey! Playing outside was their favorite activity of all.

Playing is what all young mammals come pre-programmed to do. While I, too, am currently addicted to my phone, I of course didn’t have one as a kid, which means that a lot of my free time was truly free – to ride my bike, play with friends, read, draw, spend time in the woods. Classic. It wasn’t that interesting – except to me.

Because without a wildly attention-grabbing movie theater/game device/popularity meter in my pocket, I had to engage with whatever else there was: friends, fun, nature, boredom.

How do we fight back?

But in the past generation or two, as children’s free time and independent moibility (getting around on their own) have declined, kids have been in decline, too. This started happening long before the invent of the smart phone, but it sped everything up, and social media seems like the most corrosive part of that change. How to fight back?

1. We have to start renormalizing kids out and about on their own. Otherwise, the only world left for them to explore is online. In keeping kids “safe” from strangers, traffic, bugs, and bullies, we’ve kept them UN-safe from anxiety, depression, and suicide.

2. We should also work to popularize programs like ”Wait Until  8th,” where parents jointly agree to wait til their kids reach 8th grade before giving them a phone.

3. We suggest you ask your school to start a Let Grow Play Club. It’s so simple! The school stays open for mixed-age, no-devices, free play after school. There’s an adult (or teen) in the corner with an Epi pen. But other than that, it’s old-fashioned fun. The kids organize the games. They solve the spats. They figure out stuff kids have always figured out, like how to deal with a cheater, or a little brother who keeps running onto the field. Kids become engaged and confident when they get to do things like that. Real things.

And as one 4th grader told me when I asked whether he prefered playing in real life or online: “You can make friends online, but when you take the headphones off, there’s no one there.” Added his friend, “I like real life.”

Kids are desperate to play and be together. If the only place we allow them to do that is online, that’s where they will go.

Give them back the real world – without adults constantly supervising, organizing, and “helping” — and you just may have to clang a cowbell to get them to come in for dinner.

Let freedom ring.

Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement.


Make your own rules for Screen-Free Week

Make your own rules for Screen-Free Week

There are no rules for Screen-Free Week! Plan whatever works for your family, organization, or community. Not sure where to begin? Let these stories from past Screen-Free participants be your guide!

Heather Ristau’s Story

“I look forward to Screen-Free Week every year. As screens and technology become more prevalent in our lives every day, we have to make a conscious effort to put the phone down, close the laptop, and keep the TV off.

For my husband and I and our two girls (ages 9 and 6), Screen-Free Week gives us the extra push we need to reset our habits as we move into the warmer months. We are lucky in our community to have people who put together a lot of fun resources and activities for the week. Some they plan themselves and others they just help spread the word about.

We’ve done everything from scavenger hunts to stargazing with high powered telescopes. That was our favorite activity last year. We went to a local state park where an astronomy group had their telescopes set up. The girls especially loved seeing the craters on the moon and watching the bats swoop through the air all around us.

We spend a lot of time outside already, but Screen-Free Week helps us put down technology and get outside even more to try new things in our community or to just take extra time as a family to read books or play games. We love spreading the word about Screen-Free Week and encouraging other families to find and enjoy the peace that comes with being Screen-Free!”

Ten Ten Recreation’s Story

“We celebrate Screen-Free Week with contests and initiatives with our before and after school program kids.

Those who choose to participate take a pledge to remain screen-free during Screen-Free Week (other than for educational purposes). Parents report how many days their child stayed off of screens, and for each day, the child will receive a raffle ticket for a cool prize.

Also, to promote being active, we plan to have kids run sprints in their gymnasium this year. For every sprint kids do in a minute Ten Ten will donate $1 to a local charity as a group.”

    Jacquelyn Schwanz’s Story

    “Screen-Free Week is a yearly tradition and the cornerstone for the transition to screen free summer!

    We live in Michigan where winter is unpredictable but spring and summer are phenomenal.

    Screen free week is our kick off for the summer and from day one,  we strive to not have screen time until the frigid months.

    Our children are four and two, and neither have ever missed the movie nights or cartoon afternoons as we are having too much fun gardening, exploring our property, and rock hunting. We are looking forward to participating again this year and advocating for Screen-Free Week to turn into Screen-Free Year!!!”

    Thank you to Heather, Ten Ten Recreation, and Jacqueline for sharing your stories with us! If you’d like to participate in Screen-Free Week 2023, take the pledge today. Or, if you’d like to plan an event, please visit our resource library

    Screen-Free Teen Roundtable

    Screen-Free Teen Roundtable

    Our 2023 Screen-Free Week Coordinator Jen Kane, recently sat down with three teenagers, ages 15-18, who have spent over a month screen-free during their summers to talk about that experience. The conversation is excerpted below.

    Jen: Can you tell me the pros and cons about having gone screen-free?

    Keely: When I did screen free [at a day camp] the phone was still there—in the room—but I wasn’t allowed to use it. That’s okay, but it’s even harder when you go somewhere where you’re not even remotely close to any devices. Thankfully, after a while you start to not think about it.

    Jen: So, do you think somebody needs to physically take away your device for you to be able to go screen free?

    Kaia: Yes. Sometimes I’ll be so bored, or I’m so sick of my phone, and I actually want to do something else. But then I’m still like, [mimes picking up phone] ‘what’s in this app?’

    Keely: I do that too.

    Ronnie: Sometimes I’m tired of being on my phone, so I’ll read a book. But I’ll still have my phone next to me. The minute it buzzes, I’m like, [mimes scrolling].

    Jen: Do you feel like you’re addicted to your phone?

    Kaia: For me personally, yeah. Even when I don’t want to be on it, I’m still on it. It’s the first thing I go to all the time, and I will get stressed out if I’m away from it for a long time.  

    Keely: Sometimes my timer goes off on YouTube, and says, “You spent four and a half hours on YouTube.” And I say, “yeah,” cancel the timer, and watch like, another three hours.

    Ronnie: I am a recovering Twitter addict. I’ve deleted it for, like, a week so many times. I always re-download it, even though I hate it. It makes me feel so bad that I’m so addicted to it.

    Jen: So how did you stop using Twitter in the past?

    Ronnie: It was very spur of the moment thing. There was one day where my timeline was so full of this one argument I thought was really stupid, and people were getting so aggressive over it. And I was just like, ‘why do I do this to myself?’ So, I deleted it.

    Kaia: That’s something I’ve done a lot too. I don’t have Twitter, but I’ve deleted TikTok so many times, because when I come back down to Earth, I’m like, ‘I’m not having fun. I don’t like this.’ It just makes me feel bad about myself. It makes me overly socially aware and anxious all the time. It makes you question your sense of self.

    That’s why I think it is an addiction. When I’m not on it, I’m like, ‘what a breath of fresh air!” Those constant boosts of serotonin in the moment creep up on you in a way that you don’t even realize that social media is the thing that’s making you so miserable.

    Jen: Is there anything in the real world that gives you that same high?

    Ronnie: Yeah. The Lord of the Rings. [everyone laughs because Ronnie really, really likes LOTR!]

    Jen: Okay, so what does it feel like when you go screen-free and eliminate all that noise in your life?

    Ronnie: I feel like I have a lot more time to do things. But sometimes I don’t know what to do. So, it’s like, ‘okay, I can read a book and I can journal.’ I can also have conversations about serious topics with friends and family that respect me, which is way different than Twitter.

    Keely: When I come back from a screen-free camp, I’ll sometimes catch up with people on my Instagram feed, text people, and watch reels. But that’s about it, unless it’s close friends. I don’t care about everything everybody posts every day.  

    Kaia: I journaled about this a lot, especially when I got back from [a screen-free] camp. When I’m really depressed or anxious it’s usually because of social media. Without that distraction it makes me think about myself a lot more. It’s almost like you forget how much fun your mind is when you’re constantly having this other stimulant. You forget what your own brain can do.

    Screen-Free week is for teens too! If your teen wants to participate this year, invite them to pledge to participate at screenfree.org/pledge. The teens above aren’t going entirely screen-free on May 1, simply picking one problematic app from which to take a week-long break. Sounds like a great plan to us!


    Changing just one habit for Screen-Free Week

    Changing just one habit for Screen-Free Week

    The urge had become completely Pavlovian.

    Whenever I stopped at a red light while driving, I’d check my phone for messages. Stop at a red light, check for messages; stop; check. It was ingrained, unsafe, and annoyingly compelling and unstoppable. Even with my notifications off ’d keep my phone nearby, compulsively checking for no reason whatsoever.

    I should have known better, of course, given my professional work with Screen-Free Week 2018 and 2019 and the Screen Time Action Network. But even those of us deep in the fight for safe, humane tech for children rely on our digital tech to help us advance our mission and advocacy.

    That means we are no less prone to habituated tech habits and digital tech overuse (or unsafe use), especially considering that our tech devices are so deviously designed to feel impossible to put down.

    So in spring 2022, I asked myself: could I use Screen-Free Week this year to spark lasting change in my relationship with my own devices?

    For the two years I worked to promote Screen-Free Week, I urged families, schools, and communities to consider their past year of digital tech use as inspiration for how they’d celebrate the week, then use the week as inspiration for a changed relationship the rest of the year. But could one Screen-Free Week really make a difference in my own life?

    Let me quell the doubters and naysayers by saying that yes, it can be absolutely habit changing.

    Last Screen-Free Week I made that one simple resolution not to check my phone at red lights. That was it. I kept my phone in my purse and kept the purse zipped and inaccessible. It wasn’t easy, but I knew that putting temptation out of reach is an important habit-changing tool.

    After one week of a severed “red light-check phone” connection thanks to Screen-Free Week, the urge had begun to lift. I decided to continue the practice as I didn’t want to give up on my progress.

    Months later, I’ve stuck to this new habit. If I feel strongly that I need to check my phone (like when I’m waiting for an important message), I will pull to the side of the road and check. I also keep a pad of paper and pen near me to jot down ideas that pop into my mind (yes, I do this at red lights, but it is not an ingrained, habituated response, so I allow myself this traffic light indulgence).

    I can check my phone before I begin a drive and after I’ve parked at the end, but not during the drive itself. I replaced one terrible tech habit with a digital wellness practice that fosters mindfulness and allows me to enjoy the journey more.

    So yes, Screen-Free Week is about a week of gratitude, fun, and community. But I’m serious when I say that if you’re lucky, it may rock your year as well!

    Rinny Yourman, Esq., digital wellness educator, parent educator, blogger, and mom to two teens, volunteered and has worked with Screen-Free Week and the Screen Time Action Network at Fairplay since 2018.