A ban on phones, tablets, computer games, or TV for a whole month? It seemed like a good idea at the time…
With two working parents, two spirited girls aged six and two, and a four-year-old boy with complex medical needs, since the summer we had been slipping not-so-slowly into a high dependence on the malicious ‘electronic babysitter’. What started as “We’ll watch only educational programmes, only on the BBC, for a maximum of twenty minutes a day, and we’ll all sit together and discuss them,” had degenerated into whole afternoons of unsupervised surfing YouTube videos of bizarrely-animated nursery rhymes.
Arriving home tired and hungry but no dinner on the table? Pop Peppa Pigon for half an hour while I rustle up some pasta.
A bored six-year-old clamouring for attention when I need to concentrate on getting her brother’s medications right? Let her play a game grooming unlikely-looking pets on the iPad (other brands of tablet are available).
Two girls bouncing on the bed at 6am on a Saturday morning? For God’s sake go downstairs and watch Frozenbut NOT TOO LOUD!
The girls’ tussles over the remote control even led me to let them have both the TV and the iPad so each could watch their preferred channel at the same time! Enough was enough. But how were we going to get out of this habit? Setting time limits had never worked for us, they always degenerated sooner or later. The only way, we figured, was to go cold turkey: completely screen-free, for long enough to break the dependency: for a month.
I have no idea why we decided to instigate the plan in October. Surely February would have been three days easier? With the nights drawing in, the Scottish weather deteriorating fast, and the school term dragging but still no sign of Christmas cheer it was a fairly dismal time to try to keep everyone’s spirits up without the occasional dose of Thomas the Tank Engine. On the other hand, autumn in all its bounty offered a fine stimulus for nature-based activities – conker fights, leaf rubbing, rock painting, puddle-jumping. And with the excitement of Halloween at the end of the month there was no shortage of inspiration for pumpkin, monster and bat-themed artwork. But could such simple pursuits really compete with Paw Patrol and the PJ Masks?Or would the children’s adaptability surprise me?
The rules. For the kids, the instructions were simple: no TV; no iPad; no borrowing mum’s smartphone. For the grown-ups, things weren’t quite so clear-cut: laptops had to be allowed, for work. Phones were banned during meals (a rule I admit was already in existence but regularly flouted), but couldn’t be switched off in case of emergency … or in case we needed to check the weather before hanging the washing out. Or time ourselves boiling an egg. Or WhatsApp each other a comedy train emoji as code for ‘I’m on the way home’. Addicts? Us? I’ve no idea where the children get it from…
The first unforeseen consequence of our resolution emerged before the big switch-off had even begun: our two girls suddenly became intent on cramming in as much TV and as many computer games as they possibly could in the days before the shutdown. I could see the logic – but it didn’t bode well for weaning them off when the time came. Unless they actually broke the iPad from overuse, which could have saved us all a lot of bother.
Be prepared. Not wanting to be caught short during a medical crisis, or to waver after a particularly exhausting night, a few days before switch-off I drew up a list of potential screen-replacement activities and kept it a closely-guarded secret until after the children were in bed on September 30th(I hoped a bit of mystery would fuel an excitement, rather than dread, about the month to come). Since my main use of screen-time tended to be to keep the girls occupied while cooking, working, or looking after their brother, I stuck to activities that required the minimum of supervision – so no long walks on the cliff-tops or toasting marshmallows over an open fire (although I hoped we might squeeze those in at some point too). I also invested in a few extra crafty bits and bobs and for those particularly tough moments, stickers.
Much to my surprise, the plan seemed to work. The girls were up extra-early on October 1st, desperate to see what excitement the month had in store. So it was a good job I’d decided to create my coloured masking-tape hopscotch on the hall floor before I went to bed the night before! Hopscotch was an immediate hit. As was drawing on the wall, a novelty we could accommodate as we had a couple of decorating projects planned for the near future (we rarely keep to plan though, so will probably be living with the scribbles for several years to come). Cutting and sticking pictures from magazines was also met with great excitement, although mainly because they managed to create a snowstorm out of tiny pieces of cut-up paper. For biggest girl, even practicing her reading on the list of activities stuck to the kitchen door was enticing, whilst littlest was happy scribbling her own illegible additions with the pencil I’d also stuck there. My only concern was that, with the rate they were getting through the list, we’d run out of new and novel ideas before the end of the week, let alone the month!
The real test. We had a fairly gentle run-in to the month, which started on a Monday, with the two girls being pretty well occupied with school, nursery, swimming, ballet, and so on from the start of the week. The first big test, however, came on Friday. School finishes at lunchtime in our area, and I had become used to letting the kids chill out in front of a movie (maybe even with popcorn and a blanket) while I pottered around clearing up the chaos of the week. Not so this week! I’d already used my big guns – a new pack of jigsaw puzzles each – on Thursday, so the girls were reduced to making sequined fish decorations before breakfast and paperclip necklaces after lunch, painting keepsake boxes rescued from the recycling (not to mention their entire bodies, and the entire kitchen…) in the afternoon, and designing Halloween costumes between bath and bed-time. Fortunately they invented their own game of going on an imaginary holiday after tea, which gave me a chance to hoover up the sequins, clean painty handprints off the bannisters, and do an extra load of paint- and glue-covered washing. On reflection, attempting to also toilet-train the youngest that weekend was probably a mistake, at least from the laundry point of view.
The girls totally surprised me by how quickly and easily they adapted to the new regime. By mid-October, they were getting almost complacent – they didn’t bother to read the list of activities even though there were plenty of fun things still untried. But equally, they didn’t seem at a loose end or lost without their screen – they never even mentioned it. They were happy playing hospitals with their teddies and building Lego. They even stuck to the rules when my husband and I went on a rare night out leaving the girls with their grandparents, although I had given Nanny permission to make a one-night exception if necessary. I suspect their brother watched some sneaky movies at his respite placement though!
I, on the other hand, had pretty much slipped into my old ways, checking Facebook on my phone because it was there, and watching mindless nonsense on catch-up in the evenings. I guess it really is easier to go all-or-nothing. And sadly, at least in my line of work, nothing just wasn’t possible.
Switching on again. As I write this, October 31stis drawing to a close. The girls have been out ‘guising’ with their dad, performed their little skits for the neighbours, and consumed far too many sweets. Their brother and I manned our own, jack-o’-lantern-lit doorway armed with a bucket of cheap confectionery. An evening of good, old-fashioned entertainment shared with the local community. So, would I spurn the TV, iPad and smartphone for more traditional pursuits every night of the week?
Most of the time, yes. I love the fact that our girls will now happily sit and do a puzzle together while I make dinner, the eldest helping the youngest, instead of squabbling over the remote control. I like that they are not clamouring for me to buy me things they’ve seen on TV but are instead raiding my sewing drawers for ribbons and sequins. I wish the adults of the household had been as committed as the children!
But as the month drew on I began to realise some screen-time activities can be positive pursuits, which I am looking forward to reinstating. It seemed unfair that my eldest couldn’t message her best friend over the October break, especially as it encourages her to practice reading and spelling. And I really missed videoing the girls’ spontaneous dance routines or photographing their funny expressions on my phone and us all watching them back together and rolling around laughing. I missed being able to close the curtains, put on the fairy lights and play some funky music through the Smart TV as an energy-burning disco before dinner. I also came up short of finding anything to replace a ‘Cosmic Kids’ yoga session on YouTube as a calm-down before bath-time after a hectic day. And I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with a family movie night, popcorn and snuggly blankets on a wild and wet Friday evening. With careful management I hope we’ll be able to reintegrate these elements without succumbing to a total digital takeover, at least until after Christmas!
I admit I am astonished that we succeeded in our self-imposed challenge (by ‘we’ I mean the children, who utterly out-will-powered me from day one). As always, my children surpassed my expectations and made me utterly proud to be their mum. I do, however, suspect that the only reason our screen-free month worked at all was that they for some reason believed everyone was doing it! Innocently, they assumed the whole community were victims together rather than that they just had an unusually malicious mother. I swear I wasn’t the source of this illusion, although I admit I did nothing to disabuse them of the idea. It did lead to a couple of awkward conversations, such as at the local sports club after ballet class (“But Mummy, why is the TV on? They must have forgotten it’s October? We should tell someone…” I could see that going down well amongst the folks glued to their pints and to Cash in the Attic). Perhaps, in fact, wider participation is the way forward? If not a universal boycott, at least a widespread one, along the lines of ‘Stoptober’ and ‘Movember’. A digital switch-off: Analoguary?! Who’s with me for next year?
Alex Davey is a botanist, blogger, and most importantly mum to Jackie (6), Benjamin (4) and Caitlin (2). They live in Dunbar, on the beautiful East Lothian coast, with her husband and two guinea-pigs. Benjamin was born with complex and life-limiting medical needs, which Alex blogs about at www.thelongchain.wordpress.com.