Friday, April 29, 2011

My Screen-Free Week

I wasn't able to meet my ambitious goal of no Internet at all during the week. In fact, I didn't last very long thanks to a post at the Corporate Babysitter that I couldn't help reading . . . or responding to.

I quickly realized that using the Internet was so ingrained in my work that forgoing entirely wasn't going to work. So I loosened up that rule and decided that I could read things and visit sites that were truly work-related. Making that delineation was easier than I anticipated, and I'm proud to say, I didn't stray into non-work related sites all week.

The other part of my Screen-Free Week plan was to avoid all screens when not at work. This part was an unqualified success. The first couple of nights felt strange with the computer not on, but it was very easy to get used to screen-free nights. I was more focused during my time with my daughter, not only because there were no "quick" email checks, but because without even the possibility of going online I was more present when I was with her as well.

After she went to bed, during what it is almost always Internet time for me, I read. And I went to bed early. And easily. For whatever reason, it was much easier to fall asleep after reading something tactile than after my usual routine of reading online. And like Shara, my dreams were pretty awesome!

The weekend wasn't as much of a challenge as it might have been because we visited friends and family in New York. The only hard time was when both my wife and daughter took a nap on Saturday and I really wanted to go online. And if it was just between me and the screen, I probably would have; "No one will even know," a voice kept telling me. But the knowledge I was doing this with others was really helpful. I forced myself to go for a walk and, once I was outside in my old Brooklyn neighborhood on a beautiful afternoon, I felt positively foolish that cheating had even crossed my mind.

There were other hard moments, mostly related to not being able to check blogs or news sources. Whether it was the protests in the Middle East or the budget wars, I didn't feel on "top of things," not that I'm sure I could define what that means. It felt strange not to know that Bradley Manning had been transferred to another prison until reading about it in the paper the next day. If it hadn't been Screen-Free Week, Twitter would have alerted me to the transfer as soon as it happened and then I would hit the blogs for analysis and, by the time I picked up the paper the next day, it would have felt like old news.

So if I had one major insight during the week, it was that my need to constantly consume news and analysis is about more than simply keeping informed; there's something clearly compulsive about always having to be "connected" to the events of the day.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I swore I was a changed man, I've slipped very easily back in old habits this week. I found it much easier when I had strict limits. I fear the next challenge -- learning how to use the Internet in moderation -- is actually going to be much harder than going Screen-Free.
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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dreaming of a Screen-Freer Future

I not only survived, I thrived during Screen-Free Week. I can tell by my dreams. The last few nights of my screen freedom yielded some of the most spectacular dreams I’ve had in a long time. Friday night I was literally flying around town with an air-powered jet pack, sharing my environmentally-friendly transportation invention with interested onlookers. Saturday night I giddily watched a performance by a couple who erupted from an organized sit-down dinner into a colorful, acrobatic dance. My mind at rest could suddenly imagine the bizarre and the beautiful, flight and frolic. I attribute my dream renaissance to several days of living uninterrupted by screen media’s barrage.

My waking experience of Screen-Free Week was not quite as surreal, though the first few days did induce a kind of vertigo.While using the internet for work, I found myself impulsively clicking over to Facebook and Twitter. I’d get to the log-in page and realize, startled, that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d navigate away, but before too long there I was again, staring at the request for a user name and password. Monday after work I had plans with family, so I wasn’t enticed by screens, but Tuesday night was a different story. I was really tired by 7PM and all I seemed to be able to think about was not being able to turn on the television and zone out. It reminded me of the time I tried to quit coffee and, as my head pounded, all I could imagine was how a cup of joe would be a quick cure and how delicious it would taste. Except Tuesday night the thought that consumed me was how easily I could click the TV on and how mindlessly I could watch it. Thankfully, this was the low point of my week.

The rest of my days without screens were wonderful. I had dinner with my college roommate, filled an entire box of books to donate, and spent a great weekend with my family in New Hampshire. My first night in the mountains my aunt, grandmother and I chatted while my 11-year-old cousin Nate and I played a game of “spot the differences between the photos” we found in some of my nana’s old magazines. Saturday my family ventured to find a country pancake house (well, more like barn) of which we’d heard rumors. The local maple syrup was worth the windy ride. Later that day, my aunt Melissa and I explored my family’s old camp in the woods and made preliminary plans to give it new life this summer. Luckily I’m not a hockey fan, or else sitting next to the TV reading while my family watched the Bruins game might have been tough, but all in all I was happily surprised by the ease of ditching screens for a week.

Today is my third day back on screens. I haven’t remembered a single dream since I plugged back in. But that may be a short-term effect of my return to screen-mediated life, because my relationship to screens has changed. I’ve not updated my personal Facebook status, nor have I tweeted. The TV has stayed off. These activities just don’t feel as essential as they used to. I’m looking forward to all of the time I’ll spend away from screens this year imagining and revitalizing our little cottage in the woods—which will, of course, be screen-free.
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Compulsory Screens—and Screen-Compulsions

I broke my Screen-Free Week pledge within 60 minutes of waking up on the first day—by walking into the gym. After drifting into my usual exercise-induced trance, I startled awake to find myself reading a news crawl on one of the eight wall-mounted televisions, each tuned to a different station.

That prepared me, however, for the coming week. I was going to have to be vigilant not just about the screens I chose to give up, but about screens over which I have no control. I did pretty well—and I’m proud of it.

The truth is that my hopes about reading more, taking time to do nothing, and going to the circus didn’t materialize—a death in the family had me on a plane to Detroit and spending time with several generations of cousins. I found myself wondering if grief exempted me from Screen-Free Week—or if being cut off from email during the day meant that I could check it at night—despite my pledge that I wouldn’t. I decided to stick to my promises to myself—and here’s what I learned:
  • After four hours offline I start going through withdrawal. I don’t break out in a sweat, but I feel vaguely antsy, anxious and disconnected. That got better as the week progressed.
  • It is really hard for me to be in the presence of a screen without watching it—and watching is automatic. I discovered this not only at the gym, but when I walked into a room where a five year old was watching the Berenstain Bears (I don’t even like the Berenstain Bears—but there I was for a minute or two watching them until I remembered what week it was).
  • It’s difficult to avoid Facebook even when I’m not on it. Postings on Facebook came up in conversation among my cousins several times a day. Question: If someone repeats a Facebook post to you verbatim is that a violation of Screen-Free Week?
  • I am grateful for friends on the West Coast whom I could call late at night—a time when I’m most vulnerable to screens. And it was lovely to connect to them really instead of virtually.
  • It’s helpful to have rules.
I also confirmed something I long suspected—for me, screen time isn’t really relaxing. Reading relaxes me. So does walking, and good conversation with friends and family.

And it was great to get on top of what I’m pretty sure is a compulsion if not an addiction. I’m about to go away for two weeks, and while I’m gone I’m going to figure out a set of rules for myself for all year round.

P.S. My cousin Jordan threatened to photoshop and post a picture of me glued to a screen during SFW. So if you see one, it’s fake. Honest.
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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Colbert-Free Week

Screen-Free Week starts in a few days, and I am mostly excited for the challenge. I’m a little anxious about leaving the Facebook world for seven whole days (I wasn’t even able to do that during a trip to the French Alps last fall), but I look forward to escaping status update overload and all the virtual tagging and poking for a while. I’m happily anticipating more time for reading, listening to music, and enjoying longer walks with my two little dogs. But what I’m not so happily anticipating is tuning out Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert next week. I have identified my Screen-Free Week Achilles’ heel.

I’ve considered proposing that CCFC choose the date for Screen-Free Week based on the Comedy Central duo’s vacation schedules, but something tells me that won’t fly. The flurry of thoughts that came to mind when I started visualizing my week went something like this: “Can I watch online episodes of the Colbert Report and the Daily Show that I miss? Will they be as enjoyable a week later? Does it defeat the purpose of going screen-free for a week if I just double up on my screen time the next?” Even though I only catch these favorite shows of mine a few times a week, this planning process helped me realize how much I enjoy—and even depend on—my favorite television satirists.

I think that’s one of the really wonderful things about Screen-Free Week: it challenges us to think about and evaluate the media we consume. Preparing for the week has helped me weed out the programs I really love from the ones I watch just because. Turning off House Hunters? Who cares. Scrubs? Seen every episode, no problem. Seinfeld? Seen every episode thrice—wait, why do I keep watching them over and over? Determining which media content I’ll truly miss has shown me that most of the screen-based entertainment I consume I could easily do without…except those hilarious news shows I’ll miss so.

What if after Screen-Free Week the only time I spent watching TV was on the Colbert Report and the Daily Show a few times a week? I think it’s doable and that it would be screen time well spent. As for my current screen diet, it’s not the healthiest. I hope next week’s digital detox flushes away some of my media toxins so I can enjoy the full flavor of the good stuff.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Screen-Free Week and Me

Given that my daughter (almost 2.5) is screen-free year-round, the week won’t really affect her (although hopefully her father will be a little less distracted). So for me, the week is more about looking in the mirror.

Giving up TV will be easy. If it weren’t Screen-Free Week, I would definitely watch some of the NBA playoffs but given that my team (don’t laugh – the New Jersey Nets) isn’t in them, it won’t be much of sacrifice.

But the Internet is another story. I know I spend way too much time online. I never joined Facebook, but Twitter definitely has its hooks in me. I get lost clicking from tweets to news and commentary. And then there’s commentary on the commentary and before you know it, wow – is it really midnight? I swore I’d be in bed by ten.

I could probably rationalize that the news and blogs I consume aren’t entertainment. After all, I’m not reading TMZ or even, for the most part, establishment media – I’m educating myself by reading alternative news sources and brilliant commentators. And isn’t it my job – both as an activist and a citizen – to be informed?

But it’s Screen-Free Week – and I owe to myself and my family not to rationalize. And as wonderful as the Internet has been for me for so many reasons, when I can’t pass by my office without checking email, when I stay up until 2:00 AM following the results of the Wisconsin Supreme Court election (yes, I really did that), when I find myself feeling cranky because no one has retweeted that brilliant tweet of mine, something is out of whack.

So here’s my plan for Screen-Free Week

1. No computer at home. No email, no Internet no matter what the content, no blogging, no tweeting, nada.
2. No Internet at work. I need to respond to emails, but rather then spending my Screen-Free Week trying to decide if an article is work-related or not, I’m going cold turkey.

I’m honestly not sure I can do it. But I do know I’m going to have fun trying. And I’m really excited to read more (offline! books!!!) than I have in years.
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How Hooked am I? Thoughts about My Own Screen-Free Week

So my daughter-in-law stopped by the office yesterday to pick up a Screen-Free Week Organizer’s Kit. National Screen-Free Week, April 18-24, is hosted by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

She, her husband, and the two best little girls in the world—okay, in my world—are going to join in the celebration by giving up screens for a week and hanging out in life. What’s interesting is that she doesn’t think it’s going to be so hard for the children. But she's not so sure about the adults. She’s determined to stop checking her phone at home (which annoys the kids) and their dad is going to stop “staring at the computer” (which also annoys the kids).

That got me thinking about my own Screen-Free Week commitment. At my house, it’s going to be adults only, since we have no children living at home. And I have to admit that I’m excited, but also a little apprehensive. Like many people I know, my own screen time has gotten pretty much out of control.

Here’s what’s going to be hard for me to give up: Wordscraper. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a Scrabble-like game for a social-networking-site-that-shall-not-be-named. I’ve got several hot and heavy games going with friends I don’t see much. Guess we’re going to have to chat by phone instead—or make an effort to see each other. And I’m going to have to find someone to actually play scrabble with me.

I expect and hope that forgoing random television programs and at-home movies is going to be less hard. At CCFC, we’ve had discussions about whether actually going out to the movies counts. What if it’s a documentary? Or some really good indie film?

But here’s the biggest challenge: At CCFC we’ve agreed that we’re not going to check our email or the web after work. Now that’s going to be hard.

Here’s what I’m planning to do instead: Read, walk outside, go hear colleagues give a lecture, have dinner with friends, cook for the holidays, knit, do crossword puzzles. Take two little girls to the circus. Oh—and nothing, absolutely nothing.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

101 Screen-Free Activities

National Screen-Free Week is April 18-24.  Here are 101 ideas for things to do during the week-long celebration.  Please comment to share your favorite screen-free activities! (Click here for a printable version -- use it to cover up your TV!)

At Home
1. Listen to the radio.
2. Write an article or story.
3. Paint a picture, a mural or a room.
4. Write to the President, your Representative, or Senators.
5. Read a book. Read to someone else.
6. Learn to change the oil or tire on a car. Fix something.
7. Write a letter to a friend or relative.
8. Make cookies, bread or jam and share with a neighbor.
9. Read magazines or newspapers. Swap them with friends.
10. Go through your closets and donate items to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or a local rummage sale. Have a garage sale.
11. Start a diary/journal.
12. Play cards.
13. Make crafts to give as gifts. Try a new craft.
14. Do a crossword puzzle or play Sudoku.
15. Save money: cancel your cable TV!
16. Learn about a different culture. Have an international dinner.
17. Teach a child some of your favorite childhood games.
18. Study sign language.
19. Write a letter to your favorite author.
20. Cook dinner with friends or family.
21. Make cards for holidays or birthdays.
22. Play chess, bridge, or checkers.
23. Play charades.
24. Have a cup of coffee and a conversation.
25. Repair or refinish a piece of furniture.
26. Make a wooden flowerbox.
27. Wake up early and make pancakes.
28. Read a favorite poem. Read poems by poets new to you.

29. Learn about native trees and flowers in your area.
30. Plan a picnic or barbecue.
31. Go bird watching. Learn the names of local birds.
32. Walk the dog. Wash the dog.
33. Plant a garden. Work in your garden.
34. Take a nature hike.
35. Feed fish or birds.
36. Watch the night sky through binoculars and identify different constellations. Observe the moon.
37. Learn to use a compass.
38. Take photographs and then organize them into an album.
39. Do yard work.
40. Go camping.
41. Take an early morning walk.
42. Climb a tree.
43. Watch a sunset; watch the sunrise with a friend.

Around Town
44. Attend a community concert. Listen to a local band.
45. Visit the library. Borrow some books.
46. Visit a local bookstore.
47. Visit the zoo.
48. Visit the countryside or town. Travel by bus or train.
49. Attend a religious service.
50. Walk to work or school.
51. Attend a live sports event.
52. Look for treasures at a yard sale.
53. Try out for a play. Attend a play.
54. Collect recycling and drop it off at a recycling center.
55. Learn to play a musical instrument.
56. Go to a museum.

On the Move
57. Go roller skating or ice skating.
58. Go swimming. Join a community swim team.
59. Start a community group that walks, runs or bikes.
60. Organize a game of touch football, baseball, or softball in the local park.
61. Go for a bicycle ride.
62. Learn yoga.
63. Play soccer, softball or volleyball.
64. Play Frisbee.
65. Workout.
66. Go dancing. Take a dance class.

In Your Community
67. Organize a community clean-up or volunteer for charity.
68. Become a tutor.
69. Join a choir. Sing!
70. Start a bowling league.
71. Visit and get to know your neighbors.
72. Start a fiction or public policy book group.

With the Kids
73. Make paper bag costumes and have a parade.
74. Design a poster for Screen-Free Week.
75. Discover your community center or local park activities.
76. Blow bubbles.
77. Draw family portraits.
78. Build a fort in the living room and camp out one night.
79. Research your family history and make a family tree.
80. Invent a new game and teach it to your friends.
81. Make a sign to tape across the TV during Screen-Free Week.
82. Play hopscotch, hide & seek, or freeze-tag.
83. Organize a neighborhood scavenger hunt.
84. Play board games with family and friends.
85. Clean up or redecorate your room.
86. Make puppets out of old socks and have a puppet show.
87. Write a play with friends. Perform it at a nursing home.
88. Construct a kite. Fly it.
89. Go on a family trip or historical excursion.
90. In the snow, go sledding or make a snowman.
91. Create a collage out of pictures from old magazines.
92. Shoot hoops with friends. Play a round of H.O.R.S.E.
93. Make a friendship bracelet.
94. Create a cookbook with all your favorite recipes.
95. Tell stories around a campfire.
96. Plan a slumber party.
97. Bake cakes or cookies and invite friends for a tea party.
98. Construct a miniature boat and float it on water.
99. Write a letter to your grandparents. Make a special card.
100. Create sidewalk art with chalk.
101. Everyone!!! Have a huge party to celebrate a Screen-Free Week!
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Your Baby Can’t Really Read (and doesn’t need to)

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Your Baby Can Read! for false and deceptive marketing. YBCR is a $200 video-based system that allegedly teaches babies as young as three months to read. The Today Show did a great story on our complaint, and we’re already hearing from parents who have been duped by the company.

Reading experts from around the country agree that baby’s brains aren’t even developed enough to learn to read. Reading is more than memorizing what a word looks like on a flashcard—it requires comprehension.

Like other baby media companies, Your Baby Can Read exploits our natural tendency to want what’s best for our children. There is no evidence that babies learn anything—let alone a complex skill like reading—from videos. And in addition to conning parents out of $200, Your Baby Can Read’s false and deceptive marketing may be putting babies at risk.

The complaint is part of our ongoing effort to stop baby media companies from marketing their products as educational. Last year, we successfully persuaded the Walt Disney Company to stop marketing Baby Einstein as educational, and to offer refunds to parents who believed their claims.

Research has linked infant screen time to sleep disturbances and delayed language acquisition, as well as problems in later childhood, such as poor school performance and childhood obesity. If parents follow Your Baby Can Read’s viewing instructions, their baby will have watched more than 200 hours by the age of nine months—spending more than one full week of 24-hour days in front of a screen. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under age two.

The last thing babies need is to be drilled with flash cards and to watch videos. It’s particularly worrisome that screen time takes away from the two activities known to be educational—time with caring adults and hands-on creative play. Babies learn in the context of loving relationships, and with all of their senses. Yet, 19% of babies under the age of one have a television in their bedroom and 40% of 3-month-olds are regular viewers of television. And we all know that screen time is habituating. The more time babies spend with screens, the harder it is for them to turn them off when they’re older.

If you bought Your Baby Can Read and you’re dissatisfied, or if you’re outraged on behalf of parents who bought the product, please click here to let the FTC know that you want Your Baby Can Read to stop its deceptive marketing and compensate parents who shelled out $200 believing they were doing the best for their children.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

A Voice for Children in the Media Reform Movement

This weekend I attended the National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) here in Boston. The event, coordinated by our friends at Free Press, brought together over 2500 advocates for media justice from all over the world. It was electrifying to be among so many passionate, creative, hardworking media reform activists. What inspired me most about the conference was the diversity of issues on which we were able to connect. Individuals and organizations gathered to address issues critical to the development of a fair and democratic media system, issues ranging from war coverage to immigrant rights, from government accountability to gender equality. The mood of the conference was one of jubilation and solidarity.

So you can imagine my surprise when I was the single person to cheer after Congressman Ed Markey, in his animated keynote to a full house Saturday night, called for children's television rules to "stay on the books and stay strong." It’s not that the audience didn’t like what Rep. Markey had to say. On the contrary, happy noise from the crowd punctuated his calls for responsible environmental policies, funding for public television and, of course, net neutrality. His comments about children's TV regulation met relative silence because media reform is not, by and large, considered a children’s issue. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. A major goal of media reform is for media to give voice to and serve the needs of all people, not just the power elite. Children are the most vulnerable group in any society—and spend more time with media than they do in school—so it is especially important that media serve them well.

Our current media system does not serve children well at all. As those who follow the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s work know, programming on TV, the Internet, in films, etc. is used to deliver kids to corporate advertisers who exploit their developmental vulnerabilities to sell bad products (junk food, violent movies, sexualized dolls) and worse values (material things will make us happy, violence is the answer to conflict, women are sexual objects). An overwhelming majority of children’s media in this country is not offered with children’s health and well-being in mind, but to fill corporate coffers.

Apart from sessions on media literacy and education (which are no doubt important subjects) only a handful of NCMR sessions focused on children’s media issues. Jean Kilbourne and Diana Martinez presented with CCFC co-founder Diane Levin on media and marketing’s damaging sexualization of young girls. The screening and discussion of Media Education Foundation’s Mean World Syndrome showed how television and Hollywood create a hyperviolent culture that breeds paralyzing and volatile fear among children and adults. These sessions demonstrate that children’s issues can and should be integrated into the movement for media justice and reform. And it is in the best interest of our common goals that we do so.

When we talk about the need for laws to protect net neutrality, we must also talk about the need for regulation to protect children’s privacy as they surf the web. Marketers track children’s behavior online and target them with highly personalized and sophisticated messages manipulating them into being “good” consumers. In today’s media landscape, these messages are much louder and more powerful than those urging children to be good citizens.

When we talk about the need for media literacy in classrooms, we must also talk about the need to boot marketers from classrooms. As we fight to strengthen independent media outside of school walls, we need to challenge companies like Channel One, which delivers corporate and military advertising to a captive student audience. If we want to foster a population of critically thinking citizens, we must take on advertisers that rob children of precious school time in order to advance their own agendas.

As we petition the FCC to hold broadcasters accountable for serving the public interest, we should make sure children are included among that public on whose behalf we speak. We must make sure the FCC upholds the few laws we have protecting children from overcommercialization and not allow the blatant disregard of these rules. We need to stop shows like Zevo-3, the new cartoon by Nickelodeon and Skechers, which is based on the sneaker giant’s advertising spokescharacters and is essentially one long sales pitch. And we need to make sure that regulators prevent marketers from falsely advertising media aimed at babies as educational when research doesn’t support those claims.

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has been working for ten years on issues like these as the media reform movement has blossomed from a few dedicated individuals to a critical mass of advocates, educators and lawmakers—thanks in no small part to Free Press. We urge this powerful group of change-makers to include advertising to children on its action list and invite media reformers to join us in the movement to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers. We must work together to limit predatory marketers’ access to children and preserve what Markey, quoting Robert F. Kennedy, called "the joy of [children's] play"—that magical imaginative process that is the foundation of learning and critical thinking and key to a healthy democratic society. The future of the media reform movement, children, and democracy, depends on it.
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