Going screen-free

Sunni Kneeland of Lee’s Summit knew it was time to implement some form of a “digital detox” in her home when her children seemed too distracted with their screens to listen to her. With some specific goals and strategies, Kneeland and her husband launched their effort to detach digitally.

“For a family to be healthy and for kids to be healthy and learn healthy relationships, there have to be healthy interactions in the home,” says Cam Meers, a Lee’s Summit-based marriage and family therapist.  

But how can families turn away from their devices and invest in each other and other life skills?  Is it even practical?

Before trying any drastic measures, consider the following tips:

1)Think balance.  

“It’s important that everything we do is in balance,” Meers says.

Meers suggests applying the 80/20 rule as a general guideline to achieve balance with technology use.  In other words, set firm house rules for screen time that apply 80 percent of the time while allowing for flexibility 20 percent of the time.

2) Start off small.

For families looking to do a digital detox, it’s best to start with one evening a week and see how that goes, Meers advises.  From there, a family could increase that to one full day a week and so on.  She says kids are less likely to resist if you implement the detox in this way.

“You are probably going to get more buy-in if you start small, especially with teenagers,” Meers says.

3) Think when and where.

Meers highly recommends screens stay out of bedrooms as use there tends to lead to isolation, and she suggests the best place for such devices is in common areas of the home.

4) Have a family dinnertime.

Research has proven communication improves and families grow stronger when they eat together. Even if it can’t happen every evening, Meers says great benefits arise from sharing a family dinnertime even a few times a week.

5) Establish favorite family activities.

Focus on finding activities the family enjoys. Walks, hikes and bike rides are always an option when the weather cooperates. When the weather doesn’t allow for outdoor activities, consider a family game night.  Also, instead of spending additional money on more electronic devices, consider spending some of that money on a membership to a community center with an indoor pool.

When your family has successfully considered and implemented these tips, know you have many ways to go about a digital detox.  Some families simply go screen-free during the week and allow screen time on the weekend. Other families allow their children to earn screen time by doing chores.

Here is what a few local families are doing:

Designated screen-free days

Kneeland has two children ages 7 and 9.  For the last year-and-a-half, they have cut out screen time during the week, lasting from about 5:00 on Sunday evening until chores are completed on Friday. 

Kneeland says their digital detox began when she and her husband were having to repeat themselves to get the kids to listen. The kids were too distracted with their devices to pay attention.  As a result, they temporarily took away their devices and noticed during that time they were much less stressed and the children listened better.  Additionally, the kids began playing outside, doing art projects and using their imaginations. It worked so well they decided having screen time during the week was no longer necessary.

“It has changed the expectation that the kids have to have something to entertain themselves all the time,” Kneeland says. “Now they go find something to do.”

While the kids do not have limits on screen time during weekends, she says they often choose to play outside with neighbors instead of looking at a screen.  She recalls one recent weekend with nice weather when the kids were outside all day climbing trees, kicking soccer balls and playing hide-and-go-seek, among other activities. “It’s nice to see kids being kids,” she says. 

Kari Magness, another Lee’s Summit mom, says her family has screen-free days on the first and 15th of each month.  Her children are 7, 5 and 1, and she and her husband started their routine about six years ago when their oldest was just 1.  Because of this, the kids are very accustomed to the routine and often remind her when it is a screen-free day.  She believes the additional time without distractions has brought her closer to her husband as well.

Earned screen time and rewards systems

Lauren Letterman, a Blue Springs mom, says her three children earn their screen time by doing chores. If the chores are completed, the kids can have screen time.  If not, the screens stay off and they can read, play outside, play in the basement, build forts, play board games and the like. She says her children each have about six chores to complete to be eligible to earn screen time, and the chores include cleaning their rooms, sorting laundry, helping with trash or cleaning.

“I feel like a lot of my day is spent picking up after them, and there is only so much I can do,” Letterman says. “Having the reward with screen time works really well for us.” She has been doing this for about three years and started when she noticed her older children needed structure and definition in their household responsibilities.

Erin Beauchamp, another Lee’s Summit mom, says her family also does earned screen time with her four children, and they track the kids’ earned screen time with marbles. Each completed activity (which could be chores, reading or other tasks) earns the children a set number of marbles based on the timeliness and attitude with which the task is completed.

The child simply doing the task gets one marble, doing it well and with a good attitude earns two marbles, while doing it well, with a good attitude and without prompting garners three marbles.  The marbles then can be traded in for screen time or saved for something like going out for ice cream.

Allison Gibeson is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer from Lee’s Summit.

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