I felt like a fraud and hypocrite when my 10-year-old daughter called me out recently on the hours I had been on screens that day. Worse, I’d used “edutainment” for her as a babysitter that day too. But she had had enough. She wanted real life time with me, and trust me I wasn’t happy about my overtime online either.
You see, I’m known as an unplugged Mama, especially by my family, because I want us to be tightly connected in real life. Yet paradoxically my work as a coach advocating for Digital Wellbeing requires me to meet my audience where they’re at: on screen.
It can be a tricky balancing act to use digital communication tools like social media, email, my smartphone, video conferencing, and such. How much is too much? We all want to use technology for good, and tech allows us to broadly scale helping other people. But when tech gets in the way of my family life, I feel a mama bear rage begin to build. And when I have to compromise to balance my work with my family time I feel frustration and painful loss.
Creating Screen-Free Zones
So I’ve adopted screen-free zones. Certain spaces in my home, and for certain times or activities, we go screen-free. And in those spaces and during those times, we replace the missing screens with real connection. Like having meaningful conversations and laughs while eating meals or playing board games; reading fiction together or treasure hunting in the Bible; cooking a special recipe; or just piling onto the couch close together for a lazy morning or end of day.
Ideally, our screen-free zones are consistent. The reality is we sometimes slip or break our own rule. But we never break the principle of using screen-free zones to help connect our family. FDR said, “Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”
It’s not as hard as it sounds, but it does require buy-in from all family members. Screen-free zones take that decision making anxiety off of parents – wondering if we should take our phones to the bedside table to check for one last work email before we turn off the light at night, or make that first email check of the morning the second we open our eyes. Screen-free zones remove the arguments between parents and kids about watching TV or playing games or texting in the bedroom. They save a lot of time and a lot of drama – and who doesn’t want more time and less drama?
STEP 1: TALK IT OUT.
Before arbitrarily setting certain areas of the house as off-limits for devices, we sat down and talked it out. My husband and I talked with our teenage son and young daughter about how in a time and place far, far away, their dad had grown up without a TV so his whole house was a screen-free zone!
We explained to them that as a result of that decision by their grandparents their dad is a voracious reader, and in mom’s opinion very well educated even though he did not get to go to college. All that time available to “get bored” led him to create his own games. The kids gasped when I told them I had grown up in a third world country with some TV but not anywhere near as many choices as they have today. We reminded them of why we choose not to have a big screen or cable tv. We have enough trouble managing screen time with 3 laptops and 3 smartphones! We shared with them our desire of having our home be a place where we talked to each other and really connect by spending time together.
We brought other perspectives to the conversation by watching documentaries like “Connect” by Kirk Cameron and “Captivated” by Phillip Telfer. We talked about the problems and dangers of too much screen time. We let them know that screens are not good or bad and they are not the enemy. We shared with them our dreams for them. How we pray for them to grow up with a sense of purpose and a mission. How we love to see them being creative, making beautiful art and films, learning new things, reading about amazing people and ideas, and being able to focus on the people and things that really matter.
Creating screen-free zones at home wasn’t about “punishing” anyone, it was about giving us all safe spaces to decompress. One of the most important parts of these conversations was that except when we watched the documentaries, we removed screens from the room before we started talking. It made it a lot easier to have lively uninterrupted discussions!
STEP 2: ESTABLISH THE ZONES.
Screen-free zones can be a space in your home, or a time period anywhere. For us, the screen-free zones for our family include mealtimes in the dining room and restaurants, most car rides under one hour (except for GPS, music, or audiobooks), the back deck and all the bedrooms – including Mom and Dad’s! (with the caveat that at night, all devices come into our bedroom to “sleep” and recharge).
Our family dinner is sacred: we pray together to thank God for our blessings, the food and those who made it possible. We share the highs and lows of our day, and we laugh! We spend time together in the family room playing chess and assembling puzzles.
The decision to go device free in the bedroom wasn’t hard for us to make for our children – we had heard enough about kids connecting with strangers online or finding unacceptable material by accident when they were bored and alone at night in their rooms. Going screen free for Mom and Dad was more of a stretch, but we sleep so much better just like the research says, plus we set a good example and get more quality time ummm talking.
STEP 4: ENJOYING SCREEN TIME AS A FAMILY
When we engage in screen time besides work and school, we try to do it together in the family room. We’ll huddle up with a laptop on a high-end table. As serial entrepreneurs for 25 years, we all enjoy shows like Shark Tank and The Profit. We watch Mark Cuban and the other Sharks and debate the merits and mistakes of the various presenters. We scream and yell at Marcus Lemonis and his new partners when he takes over a business and dishes out some tough love. My daughter and I watch Mike Rowe highlight a “bloody do-gooder” on Facebook Watch and get inspired about what good we can do for others. We engage. We laugh. We discuss. We agree. We agree to disagree. We do it together (most of the time :). So figure out “your” family screen time and enjoy it. Together.
STEP 4: MAKE ADJUSTMENTS AS NECESSARY.
Part of establishing the screen-free zones was making sure that phones and computers (we don’t own tv or tablets) weren’t used in those areas. That meant that cell phone alarms could no longer be used to wake us up and we couldn’t listen to music from our phones on the patio. Instead, we invested in alarm clocks for each bedroom and used Bluetooth speakers on the deck that connected to our phones in the family room (where screens are allowed).
The key to creating screen-free zones at home is to make sure that the lines of communication are always open. Being consistent, but flexible when necessary, and making sure that everyone is included in decision making (though parents have to have the final word) is what makes it work.
You may find, like we did, that creating screen-free zones is welcomed by the kids. Even when they seem like they don’t, there’s nothing kids crave more than their parents’ love and attention. Someone said, love for a child is spelled T-I-M-E. When you’re not distracted by a device, and you’re showing them that they come first, you’re giving them the best gift of all: your undivided attention!