That’s pretty sad. Add to that the fact that television viewing has been linked with obesity, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, desensitization to violence and sexualized behavior, and shutting it off starts to sound like a really good idea.
That’s exactly what the American Academy of Pediatrics would like families to do this week, from September 19 to 25, during the annual Turnoff Week. It’s not just TV the AAP wants you to turn off—it’s all screens. That means computers and video games, too.
I have to admit that the idea of zero screens all week in my house makes me a little anxious. The computer and video games we could manage, but the TV is trickier. It’s not on a lot (I’m pretty strict about screen time limits), but certain people in my family feel very strongly about certain shows. Liam, 5, considers life incomplete without at least a small daily dose of SpongeBob SquarePants. Elsa, 13, is baseline cranky (that’s what being 13 does to you), and it’s a little scary to think about how cranky she would be without The Daily Show and The Office. And then there’s my husband and football…
But it’s important to get the screens off—if not completely, at least to get them off more. Turnoff Week is a great opportunity to evaluate your family’s screen habits, and try out different ways to spend your time. But therein lies the challenge. If you have nothing to offer in its place, your creatures of screen habit will sneak it on. My resourceful friend Nancy has a solution for this—stick a suitcase lock through the holes in the plug, and hide the key—but an even better solution is to find ways to have fun so that people forget that they aren’t watching television television or playing video games! Here are some suggestions:
- Play a game. Obvious suggestion, I know. But before you roll your eyes (or you let your kids roll theirs), give it a try—games can be really fun. Look for games that involve teamwork (and some action)—makes for more interesting interactions, gives the little ones a shot and kids always enjoy ganging up on their parents. Play Monopoly, and break the rules with stuff like side deals (that’s how you’re really supposed to play it, anyway). Teach them poker, play for something silly like crackers or stickers—kids think it’s cool to play poker. Try Charades.
- Cook. My kids separate really quickly from television if there’s cookie dough or a lickable bowl involved. You can’t go wrong with baking, but involve them in dinner prep, too (instead of having them watch TV while you do it). Give everyone a task. Play music and dance while you cook. Not only will you be separating them from television, you’ll be teaching them an important skill (people who cook meals instead of having fast food are less likely to be obese).
- Create. Paint on canvases (they are available at craft stores, for not too much money). Make a scrapbook. Build a city of Legos or blocks or cardboard houses—add to it every day (you’ll have the problem of what to do with it at the end of the week, but you can cross that bridge when you get to it).
- Get outside. Dust off the bikes, explore a bike trail. Go for a walk—if you bring binoculars, or play I Spy, even your local neighborhood becomes interesting. Bring a soccer ball to the park, or just kick it around in your backyard. Try the beach—it’s beautiful in September.
- Check out a museum. Look for ones that invite interaction, or have activities for families (you can make your own activities, like by downloading some pictures of things at the museum and making a scavenger hunt). Go early when the crowds are less (have lunch there, even if you bring it—everyone’s happier when they eat).
- Read out loud. I’m not just talking about picture books for little kids. When my older kids were little, we read the Chronicles of Narnia, most of EB White’s books, and the Harry Potter series out loud (until they got to the age when they wanted to curl up with their own copy). They loved it. Roald Dahl books are great for reading aloud, too. Get into it; make up voices to go with the characters. Act stuff out.
If you’re thinking, wow, this is going to involve some work on my part—well, you’re right. It does require being engaged with your family instead of zoning out in front of the TV like so many of us are used to. But you might just be surprised at the payoff for your efforts. You might just find that you enjoy doing things together—and that it continues after Turnoff Week.
And it’s worth it for another reason. You’ll be teaching your kids skills for entertaining themselves in ways that don’t involve screens. This is huge, and could have lifelong benefits when it comes to their physical and emotional health. That’s something that is definitely worth the effort.
What will you do to celebrate Turnoff Week? Any favorite games you like to play with your kids or activities that get the TV off and you connected with your family? Share them in the comments section below. For information on the medical and social benefits of less screen time for children, visit this post, written by Children’s media expert, Michael Rich, MD, MPH.