For Katie Silberman, the turning point came when a house painter accidentally ripped out the TV cables.
Silberman and her husband, never big TV fans, had fallen into the habit of letting their sons, Lincoln, then 7, and Haven, 4, watch television. Now, with the electronic box quiet at last, they saw a chance for a fresh start. They told the kids they were going to go outside, play more and try new things.
“We literally put the TV on the curb, and that was it,” says Silberman, 44, of Providence, R.I. “We didn’t want it anymore. It wasn’t this great moral epiphany. It just went off, and we were like, ‘God! This is super-nice.'”
Some parents of low-tech kids reach tipping points; others start their children on the screen-free diet recommended for kids under 2 (endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics) and see no reason to add lots of shows, apps and games to the menu. Some prohibit all TV, video games and nonacademic computer use on weekdays, but allow a few hours of screen time on weekends. One father told the Tribune that he and his wife allow some screen time during the icy Michigan winters but ban it almost entirely during the summer.
Still, there were common themes. In interviews with five parents of kids 10 and younger from cities as diverse as San Diego, Birmingham, Ala., and Tampa, Fla., all stressed the importance of childhood play and a concern that TVs, computers, iPads and cellphones can distract kids from more rewarding childhood pursuits, such as let’s-pretend, wandering in the woods and building with blocks.
“It’s been amazing,” Silberman, a community liaison at Brown University, says two years after jettisoning her TV. “I have two boys, and they come home, and they play! They color, and they build Legos. They build crazy things out of cardboard. I don’t know how to put it. It’s just that it’s so much nicer this way. They’re so happy.”
James Damude, a university chaplain in Midland, Mich., with four kids, ages 2 to 9, says he and his wife made summer screen-free two years ago when their kids kicked off the season by asking, “Can we watch TV?”
“This was the wildest thing: They played together so much better,” he says. “I would come into the living room, and they would all be sitting on the couch reading a book together — nobody was wrestling. They would go on bike rides around the block. My son’s got one of those little bike trailers he hooks up to his bike, so he can do his paper route, and he would put the little kids in there and take them for bike rides. It seemed like they were more friendly, more sociable with each other. It’s not a scientific study, but they came alive, if you will, for those months.”
Many parents start out wanting to aggressively limit screen time, according to psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age” (Harper). But in an era when a 2010 survey by Common Sense Media indicates that the average 5- to 8-year-old gets 2 hours and 21 minutes of screen time per day, it can be incredibly difficult to stay the course.
Still, she says, some parents do manage.
“Everywhere I go, I meet parents who say, ‘You know what? It’s kind of lonely, but we’re not giving our child a smartphone; our child has a flip phone,'” Steiner-Adair says. “‘We don’t let our child play computer games. We don’t have a Wii. We don’t have any of that; we’re a very low-tech family.'”
It’s unclear how many parents are severely limiting screen time. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which helped locate most of the parents interviewed for this story, was able to quickly identify more than two dozen families.
Adeline and Alice Habgood, ages 8 and 5, don’t get screen time during the week and watch about two hours of Netflix on weekends. Their mother, Katie, 38, a city planner in Tampa, Fla., says the girls recently made fairy houses out of shoe boxes. They read, color and invent elaborate make-believe games that last for days.
“One of our favorite things is to play vet,” says Adeline. “We like to pretend we work at a humane society. We have a vest that we use, and we have a little thing that’s a shot, and we have a whiteboard, and we’ll pretend we’re open 24 hours a day, and we’ll take the animals, and our dad has lots of Ace bandages, so we’ll wrap up their legs.”
Some of the parents interviewed said they have minor concerns that their kids won’t be able to share in conversations with peers about TV shows or popular music. Already, Adeline has experienced that with the popular Disney Channel show “Jessie.”
Keri Lane Hontzas, an event marketer in Birmingham, Ala., says that when a stuffed animal website was popular in third grade, her daughter felt she was the only one not participating.
“Well, maybe so,” Hontzas says she told her, “but we’re always doing something on the weekend. We’re going hiking, or we’re going biking. You’re going to enjoy that more in the long run.”
Helping kids reap the benefits of being tech-free
How much do parents have to limit screen time to see benefits such as an increase in imaginative play?
The answer varies from child to child and family to family; some kids can get off the computer easily, and some really can’t, psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair says. Some families allow no screen time on weekdays but then give grade schoolers a chance for extended play with a constructive game such as Minecraft on the weekends. Other families say that, after kids have played outside and done their homework, they can have a half-hour of computer time before dinner.
“I myself don’t see the need for two hours a day” of screen time, Steiner-Adair says. “And you have to be really thoughtful about what your child is doing during that time.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers additional information and resources for handling your children’s media use. Among its tips:
•Establish “screen-free” zones at home. Remove televisions, computers and video games from children’s bedrooms.
•Turn off the TV during dinner.
•Limit children’s and teens’ engagement with entertainment media to one to two hours per day. Make sure it is high-quality content.