Friday, April 27, 2012

Confessions of a Screen Addict About to Go Cold Turkey (almost) in Anticipation of Screen-Free Week: April 30-May 6

The truth: There I was, Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, champion of limiting children’s screen time, playing Angry Birds on the subway.

The justification: There I was, Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, champion of limiting children’s screen time, after a stressful day trying to change a world that wasn’t cooperating, unable to concentrate on reading, and playing Angry Birds on the subway.

Suddenly a little blonde guy, about six, practically fell over a railing and into my lap trying to get a better look at the game. Awash with guilt at setting a terrible example—being the director of CCFC has its burdens—I shut off my phone. Then his older brother spoke up. “You could get arrested,” he said.

While I felt terrible about contributing to the screen addiction of a minor—to say nothing about succumbing to my own—I was pretty sure I hadn’t broken any laws. “Really?” I said. He nodded solemnly and pointed to the “I am the 99%” button on my jacket. “Occupy,” he said, shaking his head. There followed a diverting conversation about the Occupy movement between me, the nine year old, and his babysitter. But his little brother had other things on his mind. “Why do you have that on your phone?” he said. “What?” I asked, innocently, stalling for time. “Angry Birds,” he answered. “Old people like you don’t play Angry Birds.”

I’m giving up Angry Birds for Screen-Free Week. I’m leaning toward giving it up forever, and not because I’m old. Here’s what I notice when I play: There’s just enough strategy to keep me interested. Once I start it’s hard to stop, and, the weird thing is, it’s not relaxing.

In addition to Angry Birds, I’m giving up Facebook, which I use mostly to keep track of my 30-something relatives and to play cutthroat games of Wordscraper with a friend I don’t see much. I’m also going to forgo my Sunday night back-to-back viewing of Game of Thrones and Mad Men. Not sure that counts, since I’ll DVR the episodes. Finally, since it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between work addiction and screen addiction, I’ll keep my computer completely off when I’m at home after work.

Here’s what I’m not going to give up: Screens for work during working hours.

Actually, I’m looking forward to a week without screens at home. These days I’m more aware of how they dominate my life—and what’s better without them. I sleep more soundly if I turn off my computer a few hours before bed. I pay more attention to conversation with friends and family if I’m not near a screen when we chat on the phone. And on the few purposefully screen-free vacations I’ve taken this year, I’ve returned feeling more centered and with more energy.

I’ve come to realize that one of the values of Screen-Free Week is that it helps make conscious what is usually unconscious. Screens are so interwoven into our lives that we stop noticing whether they’re fun, useful, or even necessary. We use them by default. To fill up time. To distract us from thinking. To save us from the void.

So, this Screen-Free Week I’m looking forward to meals with people I love, reading, walks, music, taking my granddaughters to the circus—and freedom from compulsion to catapult those stupid birds.
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Screen-Free At Last!

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I am so looking forward to Screen-Free Week. 

When CCFC began hosting Screen-Free Week, I didn’t think about it in personal terms.  After all, my daughter (now 3.5) is screen-free. And me? I barely watch TV.  Sure, I’m on the computer a lot.  But for good reasons.  To do my job. To follow important events. As part of my non-work activism.  If I’m using screens to be a more engaged citizen, what’s the problem?

Last year’s Screen-Free Week didn’t lead to lasting changes in my screen habits, but it  punctured my denial.  That little voice in my head saying “turn off the damn computer, already” has gotten progressively – and annoyingly -- louder.  And as Screen-Free Week approaches, it’s hard to deny that voice is right most of the time.

I need a break from screens -- computers specifically.  My eyes need a break from backlighting.  My brain needs a break from information overload.  My body needs a break from days of too-little movement and nights of too-little-sleep.

And my family needs a break from a distracted dad/husband.  Because my daughter is still screen-free, I tell myself we’re doing great job. But really, managing her screen-time is only one part of my responsibility.  I need to stop modeling screen-addiction.  And I need to be present when I’m with her, instead of thinking about my next email or tweet.

So in my quest to regain some balance, I’ve made two rules for Screen-Free Week:

1. No screens at home at all.  I’m not going to distinguish between entertainment, communication, and work because almost all of my screen time can be justified under the latter two. I’m just going dark.

2. Screen-free lunches. I preach the importance of screen-free meals all the time, but eat my lunch in front of the computer every workday.

Instead, I plan on reading books more, sleeping more, eating lunch outside more, and being less generally distracted.  I also plan on using some of my extra screen-free hours to develop a realistic plan for managing my computer time when it’s over. I really don’t want to be writing this same post again next year!
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