“Screen-Free Week” misses the Big Picture

In the midst of Screen-Free Week (May 4 to 10) David Kleeman looks at the complex issue of screen time, and how navigating the array of devices and accompanying flood of content demands media literacy and management instead of taking a break from screens.
May 6, 2015

We’re nearly at the end of 2015′s “Screen-Free Week,” an annual event intended to help families “break the screen habit.” If you’re reading this, apparently you didn’t get the memo, since it’s coming to you on a screen…and that’s the problem.

By emphasizing “break” rather than “manage,” this annual event doesn’t promote wise family media habits any more than “Eat Nothing Week” would foster healthy diets.

When “TV Turnoff Week” was established in 1994, perhaps it was a more effective tool. Cable channels were proliferating and hours of children’s programming grew with them. TV, however, was still one-directional and ephemeral. Unplugging the television for a week represented real sacrifice, since a program missed was gone forever, or at least until repeat season.

Now, the tyranny of the scheduler is a thing of the past. The audience controls what, when and where it consumes content. Forget to set the DVR? There’s always Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, streaming from the channel’s website, or multiple other options.

Away from home? There’s an app for that. A 2014 Viacom study found that as much as 15% of full-episode TV viewing was taking place on a tablet. 2015 PlayScience research showed tablets as both parents’ and kids’ preferred technology for children. Another study found that over half of two-year-olds had viewed video on a tablet.

Content, too, is adapting to changing distribution. Increasingly, young people don’t turn to mainstream channels, but to the diverse, almost unlimited professional and user-generated content of YouTube/YouTube Kids, Vimeo and other streaming sites.

It may seem like I’m making the argument for unplugging; young people are marinating in media. When anything you miss by going screen-free can be watched later, though, a weeklong media fast (like a crash food diet) is likely only to prompt subsequent binging.

We’ve had a great discussion of Screen-Free Week on the “Children and Media Professionals” Facebook group. British producer/writer Colin Ward (Chair of the Children’s Media Foundation’s Research Advisory Group) proposed that food and media fasting offer an interesting comparison: “a fasting period is partly to build self-discipline and to remind us that we should not always indulge our passions. The concerns around screen time for kids (and many adults!) tend to focus on the fact they sometimes struggle to control those passions.”

This is true and important. The first step in taming media is to recognize its seductive powers. On the other hand, the same passions, temptations and diversions are still there after Screen-Free Week ends. Addressing overall consumption does nothing for critical thinking, just as a food fast wouldn’t help you choose between an apple and French fries.

Screen time is a complex concept, and navigating the array of devices and accompanying flood of content demands media literacyFamilies, schools, and child care centers need tools for mindful evaluation of habits (check out “Bored and Brilliant” from WNYC’s New Tech City) and strategies for making thoughtful choices. They need prompts for productive co-viewing or co-play, and vocabulary for discussing what they consume or create.

What “Screen-Free Week” and its supporters miss is that not all screens are created equal. That said, Ward does point out that there are “things that most modern screens share – for example, connectivity to a virtual world, almost limitless choices for activities or sources of information, an emphasis on video or image heavy media, interactivity. What if the argument is that we may need a break from that?”

I’d contend that those are the very reasons to focus on mindfulness. Abstinence doesn’t make anyone think about those commonalities or differences, or the context in which we use screens.

The devices in our lives are tools, and we use them to fulfill unique needs, interests and gratifications — learning, communication, community, information, creation, exploration, challenge, and yes, entertainment. For young people, this is true in the extreme, and I’m not sure we ‘digital immigrants’ can fully understand the total integration of technology into kids’ formal and informal learning and social lives, or how a week without – period – would handicap them.

Are schools on board with Screen-Free, so that children are given only paper and pen or print book homework? Are kids part of collaborative projects, clubs or games online, where their absence will hinder others? Do they have friends in far places with whom they communicate by Internet? Do they own print copies of the books they’re reading on a tablet? Young people don’t just consume media, they also create it: should they shut down ProTools or Final Cut Pro for the week?

It’s easy to think of “screens” as delivering mass media, but today they’re equally likely to fuel niche passions. The big multi-channel networks (like Maker Studios or Frederator) operate thousands of micro-channels, and kids know which are just right for them.

Screens connect youth with resources that are otherwise unavailable. When I was growing up, my only options for friends were those around the neighborhood; it didn’t matter if we shared interests or orientations. Today, a young person can be different things throughout the day, connecting online with like-minded friends to play duets via Skype, build together in Minecraft, gather scientific data, learn about one another’s culture, or share common concerns (this has been a particular boon to LGBTQ teens). In these cases, the shut-off becomes a cut-off, barring access to valuable learning resources and community.

Content matters, and concerns about a child’s specific choices don’t magically disappear because they’re suppressed for a week, any more than shunning books would improve the child’s taste in literature. There are a plethora of organizations providing thoughtful and specific tools to evaluate multi-screen content, develop media literacy skill, manage online safety and otherwise take control of technology. These teach families how to negotiate media, not just forswear it.

“Screen-Free Week” organizers provide a well-intentioned list of ideas and venues for family play, but they position them as distractions from media time. If we flip the switch, and lead by promoting these as intrinsically fun ideas for everyday, instead of a once-a-year purge, we can do far more toward keeping families lives in balance.

This blog is updated and revised from a Screen-Free Week 2014 column on The Huffington Post.


About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.


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