I’m going to go ahead and say it: I love my screens.
I check my phone first thing in the morning. It’s my watch, my alarm clock, my calendar, my email, and my must-have to communicate with friends, school, family, and oh yes, my boyfriend. It’s my camera, my camcorder, and thanks to online library books, it’s my bookshelf as well. And on the 2 weekends that I don’t have my children, my phone becomes my TV. I don’t even think that screens in small amounts are bad. I like watching movies. I make my income thanks to computers and the internet. Without my phone, I wouldn’t have a GPS, or a variety of music in the car. Screens can be awesome.
But unfortunately, my two boys became rather obsessed with screens as well. During the collapse of my marriage, which started about 2 years ago, my children would come home from school and go straight to the TV, and while they watched shows that became increasingly less and less wholesome (we went from Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood to watching gamers play Super Mario Odyssey), I cooked, cleaned, cried, and scrolled through my social media feed to try and ignore the pit of depression that I was in. Things were very, very grim. To this day, I don’t know how I managed to get through it without antidepressants.
After I moved out of our home and into my mom’s empty apartment, I was alone nearly every day and night with my children. Things were so much better, and I was regaining more of my sanity every day, but things were still rough. Anyone who got divorced knows that moving out is only part of the grieving process, and some evenings, all I could do was sit with my children on the couch, one on each side, and watch movies without moving. I do cherish those nights. We laughed our way through Kung Fu Panda, Despicable Me, Garfield, The Smurfs, and more. But there were issues.
My children were never allowed to watch TV in the morning except on weekends, and without fail, my 4 year old would wake up, ask if it was the weekend, and then cry if it wasn’t because it meant he couldn’t watch TV. On the weekend, they would watch a show while I made pancakes, but after, it was a total ordeal to try and turn it off so we could go outdoors. Yes, TV was convenient. I would turn it on and shower in peace. I would cook dinner. But was it worth all the power struggles?
When I got my own place several months after moving out, I was curious. What if we ditched all screens? I’m a member of the Screen-Free Parenting group on Facebook, and many members said that stopping cold turkey was the only thing that worked for them. I was moving into a new, totally empty space. I could do anything I wanted. It was a blank slate. A new start. I was excited. Besides, I was the mom who had said, before having kids, that my children wouldn’t have access to screens for at least the first 5 years. I blamed their dad for their early introduction to the world of video games and cartoons. But was I actually capable of going screen-free?
One weekend, when the children were at their father’s, I moved into the new apartment, hid all the screens, and welcomed them the week after in a TV-free space. We had beds, couches, and a few toys. At first, they did not even notice that there were no screens. They were too busy exploring. There was a closet under the stairs! Wait, forget that, there were stairs! You could hide between the doors, and in the bedroom closets, you could even hide inside the empty kitchen cabinets. “I can do this,” I thought.
But deep down, I was overwhelmed with anxiety. How would I shower? How would I make dinner? How would I have any alone time? I tried meditating right after the separation, and I would always rely on the TV so I could sneak in 10 minutes of mindful breathing. But here’s what happened.
Because there is no TV, the kids spend more time playing in the bath. Before, I had to get into power struggles to get them to go in the bath, and then they would only stay a few minutes before they’d ask if they could watch TV.
Because there is no TV, my preschooler started playing soccer with random balls he found find throughout the house, and played for significant length of time with kinetic sand.
Because there is no TV, we played endless games of pretend using characters he had only seen in books. Before, we were Mario and Luigi. Now, we were Batman and Spider-man and Green Lantern (characters he had exclusively seen in books.)
Because there is no TV, they learned to use my turntable and are exploring my record collection. The first week was a little, um, stressful (“don’t drag the needle on the record when you want to stop it pleeeaaaseee) but now they use it like pros. My son likes to put on speed metal and then practice his Tae Kwon Do moves. Oh yea, he asked to take Tae Kwon Do lessons! We’re 3 weeks in, and he loves it.
Because there is no TV, we read endless stacks of books. I need to hit the library at least twice a week to get mountains of books that we read and reread all evening.
Because there is no TV, we can be home any time. Before, I would cringe at the idea of being indoors because I knew there’d be a battle for the screen. I’m a fun mom, but I couldn’t compete with the TV. So we would be outside, which meant having to pay for indoor entertainment when it was too cold.
And did they ask for screens? A little. They’ll ask to go to my mom’s and watch TV there, but I say no, and change the subject. Sometimes, my preschooler will cry and say he wants the Nintendo Switch, but it’s rare and doesn’t last long. And yes, showering is more difficult, but what happens now is that I tell them I need to wash my hair, and then I’ll run a bath for them and they can come in. I run the bath, they come in, I get out, and I dry my hair while they play. Dinner time? I’ll either make something easy, or I’ll reheat leftovers, or I’ll cook with the preschooler while the second grader is reading or playing the guitar (which he now practices more because, you guessed it, there’s no TV.)
I would like to say something inspirational like “you can do hard things,” but the truth is… Screen time is what’s hard. Arguing with the kids because it’s not time to watch TV, or because they’ve watched it enough and we need to turn it off is harder than not turning it on in the first place. Dealing with their behavior after they’ve been hypnotized by a screen is definitely not worth the 30 minutes of peace it gives you. And then there’s the vicious cycle I had not noticed before. I thought I was letting my kids watch TV because I needed to deal with my depression, but as it turns out, getting rid of screens actually helped my mood. So often, the kids would watch TV and I would scroll through Facebook and Instagram over and over again with absolutely no purpose. It can’t have been good for my mental health.
I can’t say I’m not a little sad that we can’t even have a movie night once a week. I’m considering going to my friends’ houses a few times a month just to watch a movie. It’s more for me than for my kids, I think. There’s something comforting about watching a show designed to entertain you and make you laugh while you eat buttery popcorn. I spent many joyful hours with my father at the movie theater doing just that, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
But in the end, we don’t need to bring screen-based entertainment into the home. It becomes an addiction, and takes over so many other wholesome things we could be doing. And worse of all, we end up thinking that we need it, that without it, we couldn’t do all the things we need to do. We shortchange ourselves and our children. I have my kids with me all the time, except for 2 weekends, and I have no one to help. But we do get to shower, we do get to have dinner. In fact, we can do so many more things now that screens are gone. If you’re thinking of going screen free, give it a shot. I did, and I’m not going back.