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Screen-free week: lasting decision, ample rewards, small surprises

Elmo-ml If you asked my kids today, they'd deny ever having had any infatuation with Elmo. Or Clifford the Big Red Dog. Or Dora the Explorer. Any of those preschool-age animated media titans. But they'd be lying. There was a time when they'd practically beg to watch a show, and I'd willingly oblige. If the experts said young kids should watch no more than 2 hours a day, mine would get their full 120 minutes before I switched off the boob tube. Hey -- I watched Mr. Rogers, Zoom, Scooby-Doo, and the Electric Company as a kid -- and I turned out OK, right?! It was easy to justify.

But like many parenting decisions, choosing to let my kids become couch potatoes for two hours a day was a slippery slope. I needed it. They needed it. Like a drug. And that media exposure had costs. Why was it that my kids knew all about Chuck E. Cheese, when they'd never been there? I found that two hours could easily be extended with just a small amount of whining. What's just one more show? Some studies say American kids' screen time averages around 3-4 hours per day, while others report it's as high as 7.5 hours, 7 days per week thanks to 24-hour cable television offerings, increasing access to the Internet and the prevalence of smart phones.

After attending a powerful presentation several years ago by local media expert and author Ellen Currey-Wilson, I decided our family needed to get the TV monkey off our backs, and to participate in TV Turnoff Week (also called Screen-Free Week). For us, it was an exercise is going cold turkey, and I pretty much knew we'd never turn back if we could make it through the week alive. I won't kid you. It wasn't pretty, but survive we did. And screen time, in essence, got kicked to the corner. Once we broke free of daily screen fix, we agreed that it would only ever be an option on the weekends. And because it's used so infrequently, my kids don't often remember to ask if they can watch a show, or play on the computer. Unlike the years when we were Elmo junkies.

I don't know about you. As a parent, I look at my kids each day as works-in-progress and I see all the behaviors we still need to work on. But the media thing? Limiting screen time at an early age was an important and pivotal parenting decision that we got definitively right. What's rewarding and also sometimes surprising? That so much is connected to media exposure: a child's activity level, creativity and imagination, the ability to simply play, self-motivation, the time and desire to participate in nature and be outdoors, how well they sleep, and how well they do at school.

Heather and I feel that TV Turnoff / Screen-Free Week is such an important topic, that we will commit this whole week to focusing on it (this is the week our school participates, while many others tie it to Earth Day and may have done it last week). We'll talk about what our kids do instead of being couch potatoes. We'll be here to motivate and cheer you on if your family is struggling through a Screen-Free Week right now. We'll discuss our important job as role models, and the choices we make to limit our time in front of our TVs, computers and phones.

It is hard work to break the media habit, but the rewards are huge! Most of all -- we hope you'll share your triumphs and struggles, as well as the pay-offs and surprises you've found. And ultimately, how to live in a media rich world in moderation.

Are you in? Struggling right now? What wisdom do you have to share?

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