Going Screen-Free at Home: It’s Not as Hard as You Think

By: Edna Rienzi, Center for a New American Dream

I don’t usually admit this to people, but my kids don’t watch much television.

I tend to keep this fact about my family quiet because I’ve found that people generally react in one of two ways: 1) they get defensive and feel the need to justify their TV choices to me, or 2) they completely dismiss me as a modern-day hippie who just doesn’t get what it means to live in the 21st century.

But I’m outing myself now because, as my kids get older, I’ve learned something that seems completely counter-intuitive: my life is actually easier these days because we have enforced strict television rules in our home.  

I originally made the decision to limit TV in our home before my oldest daughter (now nine) was even born. I had come home from one of my prenatal appointments with a packet of freebies that included a parenting magazine. One of the articles quoted the American Academy of Pediatrics’s recommendation that children under two should not watch television.

At this point, I had already started to feel overwhelmed by all the shoulds and shouldn’ts of pregnancy and parenting (Don’t eat deli meats! Read to your baby in utero! Pick a sleep strategy. Get your newborn on a feeding schedule! Feed on demand!) There were so many decisions that you were supposed to have an opinion about, and every issue seemed to have very vocal parenting camps on opposing sides. But the rule “no TV under two” seemed like an easy, straightforward piece of advice to follow (and it was given by doctors!), so I clipped out the article and filed it away.

Then my daughter was born, and my life turned inside out. Suddenly it felt like I didn’t have a minute to myself. After a few months of struggling to get through my days, I started asking friends and family how they managed to take a shower. Or cook dinner. Or stay sane. Several people encouraged me to get Baby Einstein videos and a bouncy seat. So I did, and I tried it for about a week. And it scared me.

It was so tempting to just sit my daughter quietly in front of the TV. Just one more email, I would tell myself. It’s educational, right? But I knew I was rationalizing. And I was really alarmed at how hard it was for me to pull her away from the screen. So we got rid of the videos, and tried again.

At that point, it was the TV habit (both for her and for me) that worried me more than anything. I don’t have a problem with all TV—in fact, there are shows that I absolutely love. And there have been shows that have really and truly been educational for our whole family (if you haven’t seen the Life series from the Discovery Channel, you should check it out!).

But, as Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families: “There is so much good on TV—good information and enjoyable, uplifting entertainment. But for most of us and for our families, the reality is more like digging a lovely tossed salad out of the garbage dump. There may be some great salad there, but it’s pretty hard to separate the trash, the dirt, and the flies.”

And even if all TV were good, enjoyable, and uplifting, you still have to consider the tradeoffs. As Covey points out, it would take an “enormous amount of benefit from television to trade off the time that could be spent with family members learning, loving, working, and sharing together.”

Different times, different influences

I grew up with the TV habit, and I first noticed its impact when I was in college. I had a couple of roommates who had grown up with very limited television time, and they both had such fun hobbies and interests. (My greatest talent at the time may have been my ability to sing the theme songs from shows as varied as “The Facts of Life” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”) And their approach to relaxation was so different from mine. When we finished exams, I would plunk down in front of the TV and just zone out—whereas they would make art, read, go for a run, call friends…. it just didn’t occur to them to relax in front of the television. And the truth is, I didn’t actually feel relaxed after vegging out in front of the TV—I felt sort of numb and weary, whereas they seemed energized. 

All that being said, my childhood TV habit pales in comparison with those of today. When I was growing up, there were only certain times of the day that had programming for kids: Saturday morning cartoons and prime-time sitcoms, with the occasional after-school special. Outside of that, I spent most of my free time outdoors, playing games and riding bikes. And I read for hours every day.

I’m so grateful I didn’t grow up today, when a kid can always find something to watch on TV, because I’m certain that, instead of a childhood filled with books, I would have succumbed to the lure of the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.

These days, children between the ages of 2 and 5 watch an average of 32 hours of television a week, or over 4.5 hours a day! And it gets far worse as kids get older. Today’s 8-to-18 year olds spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day using media entertainment, such as TV, social networking sites, electronic music players, and video games. (And that doesn’t include texting, which adds an additional hour and 35 minutes to the schedule!)

The ad trap

When my daughter turned two, I reconsidered my strict no-TV rule. At that point, I realized that it wasn’t just the TV habit that scared me; it was also the messages that advertisers were promoting. The average American is exposed to hundreds of advertisements a day! And most of these ads are designed to make us feel badly about ourselves.

As Brené Brown points out in I Thought It Was Just Me: “If we don’t believe we’re too fat, ugly, and old, then they don’t sell their products. If they don’t sell their products, they don’t make their house payments. The pressure is on!” And what’s the impact of these appearance expectations?  Approximately 7 million girls and women in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder. Eighty percent of 13-year-old girls have tried to lose weight. Fifty percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 view themselves as overweight.

Advertisers have discovered fairly recently that younger kids are a gold mine—and they’re going after them. So not only are new toys and cereals and gadgets being developed and marketed constantly to kids, but so are products that were previously targeted only at adults.

Christine Carter with the Greater Good Science Center had an interesting piece in The Huffington Post about the fact that Victoria’s Secret is now targeting teens and tweens with their “Bright Young Things” campaign. At a recent fashion show, they hired Justin Bieber to perform while supermodels strutted around him, dressed as scantily clad toys!

I now have three daughters, and the statistics on eating disorders worry me. So I work really hard to model positive body image behavior. When I talk about food, I always focus on health rather than weight. I never put myself down (in front of them, at least) about my appearance. And we always emphasize that it’s the inside of a person that counts.

Does that mean that they’re completely unaware of the appearance expectations out there? No, because as Brown points out, “[t]rying to avoid media messages is like holding your breath to avoid air pollution—it’s not going to happen.” But I have managed to fight back against the powerful, billion-dollar beauty industries. By not letting my kids watch TV (other than our family movie night), the advertisers are not permitted to enter my house with their damaging messages and images edited for perfection.

By turning off the television, we have asserted primary control over the harmful messages that will reach our kids. I know it’s just a matter of time before one of my girls hears school friends complain about being fat and having to go on a diet. But I’m hoping that, when this occurs, my daughters will have such a strong belief in what it really means to be healthy and beautiful that these appearance expectations will just roll right off their backs.  

And, of course, the advertising problem is not just about appearance expectations. It’s also about a constant stream of messaging regarding the latest and greatest toy, accessory, or gadget that you MUST OWN immediately. What kid doesn’t get the “gimmies” after being exposed to these slick, well-produced commercials (which often tie into the very show that they’re watching)? Again, I don’t have to deal with the gimmies as much because we don’t permit commercials in our home.

Taking the leap: My family’s strategy

I know a lot of you reading this might feel scared, because you obviously want to protect your children but you also don’t want to give up the convenience of having a babysitter on demand. I completely understand that. But here’s what my experience has been: kids whose screen time is limited become extremely good at entertaining themselves. For one thing, every kid I know whose family enforces strict TV rules is an excellent reader. Why? Because when you’re bored and you’re not allowed to flip on the TV or computer, you’ll pick up a book.

There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal in 2010 called “How to Raise Boys That Read,” which referred to a study about the effects of video games on academic ability. The study found, not surprisingly, that boys who had video games at home spent more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffered substantially. The article concludes that the “secret to raising boys who read…is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books.” 

In addition to filling my shelves with good books and taking weekly trips to the library, we have a closet of art supplies. We keep paper and crayons visible and easily accessible in the kitchen. We have lots of great board games and puzzles. We have a piano and a basket of instruments. At times, my kids need me to be more involved than I would be if I just let them turn on the TV, but as they get older, my involvement gets less and less. The truth is that the hardest time for us to enforce the strict screen rules was when my daughters were toddlers.

In Mitten Strings for God, Katrina Kenison describes how difficult it was for her and her family when they first decided to give up TV: “I especially hated losing that sacred viewing hour between 5 and 6 p.m., the hour when my tired, cranky children were happy to flop down in front of the television while their tired mother got dinner made and on the table. Jack was two at the time, the age at which if he was not watching TV, then I had to be watching him.”

I remember reading that passage and feeling relieved that I wasn’t the only one struggling with the no-TV rules. And I was very inspired by her solution: she put her five-year-old to work and stuck her two-year-old in the sink and told him he was “washing dishes.” As she observes, “[i]t still required more of me, but I got something back, too—happy times with my children.” And over time, she found that it got easier.

Although I didn’t end up sticking any of my children in the sink, I did come up with activities that I pulled out only during the pre-dinner craziness. Play-Doh was very popular because my kids often would pretend that they were cooking whatever I was cooking. We also got a little kitchen playset that we put in our kitchen, and ironically, as they got older, they would often pretend to host their own cooking shows while I cooked.

Limiting TV time

As I mentioned before, we do watch a little bit of television. Every weekend, we let our kids take turns picking a Friday “family” movie. I say “family” because sometimes my youngest picks something that my oldest absolutely does not want to watch, so she watches something else later with me or her dad. Or, one of my older kids picks something that is not age-appropriate for the little one, so we don’t all watch together.

Sometimes it’s a movie that we own. Sometimes it’s a movie from the library. Sometimes we watch something on demand or that we’ve recorded on DVR. The requirements are that the movie has to be something that my husband and I consider age-appropriate, and there can’t be any commercials. So lately, that has meant that either my husband or I has to sit through the 20th screening of the recorded McKenna American Girl movie so one of us can forward through the commercials.

We’ve chosen this route for two reasons. First, I was worried that if we banned television completely, it would seem like a forbidden fruit and, as they got older, they would want to sneak away to friends’ houses to watch. Second, I was worried that they would often feel left out with their friends if we didn’t expose them to at least a bit of television. And, as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think all television is bad. There are so many wonderful movies and shows that we really want to share with our kids.

This strategy has worked for us, but I’ve heard many other parents talk about different strategies that they have found successful. I know one family that lets their kids watch a pre-approved show or movie (with no commercials) for one hour every night as they get dinner ready. I know another family that lets their kids watch as much TV as they want as long as they pick a movie from their very small collection. Because the collection is so limited, the kids don’t often indulge in long TV-watching marathons. I’ve heard of another family that got rid of the TV completely (they told their kids it was broken), and they couldn’t be happier.

You have to find what works for you and your family. And the truth is that, if your kids are older and have already acquired a TV habit, setting screen limits will be very difficult at first. And you’ll probably have to commit to spending much more time with them than you usually do. But, as the habit diminishes and your children adjust to finding and creating new forms of entertainment, I think you’ll find, as I have, that parenting becomes both simpler and more enjoyable.

Edna Rienzi is a former lawyer, current mom of three, and volunteer with the Center for a New American Dream.