After yet another tear-filled episode with my kids pleading for “just one more” video, my wife and I knew change was overdue. It was August 2021, and the digital realm of children’s videos had ensnared our household. Our then 5-year-old and 3-year-old daughters bore the brunt of it. Regrettably, they were clocking in over two hours of YouTube and movies daily.
While it’s tempting to blame the endless lockdown hours in a bustling urban center, the reality is different. The country where we weathered the pandemic had a brief lockdown. It merely sped up our descent down a path we’d chosen years prior.
Need the kids to eat? Cue a video. Want them to tackle chores, dress quickly, or make a promise? Another video. In search of a fleeting moment of tranquility? Yet another video. We might not have handed them a physical pacifier, but YouTube was our digital one. Cocomelon, Little Baby Bus, Masha and the Bear, PJ Masks, Elsa, Anna, Moana... the list goes on.
These videos worked wonders. They also wreaked havoc on our children. Post-screen mood swings were intense. Denials led to explosive meltdowns. They were hooked, only semi-content when engrossed in a video. In this digital sugar high, we played the role of enablers.
Declining their requests was a battle. Unlike TV schedules of yesteryears, our kids knew we held the reins. Every viewing request became a zero-sum tug-of-war between an addict and their supplier. Facing the sheer intensity of their reactions, we often capitulated.
This dynamic left me uneasy. Witnessing their screen-induced trances, the subsequent mood crashes, and our role in it all was distressing and disheartening. I felt trapped, seemingly powerless to alter course.
Recently, I saw a video of Daaji discussing his grandson’s transformation after a screen detox and it resonated deeply. Our experiences mirrored each other. I therefore feel compelled to share our journey – not as a model family, but as an imperfect one that has found its way through this digital maze.
We are not paragons of parenting. We know those homeschooling parents whose commitment and intentionality are awe-inspiring. If I had to label our parenting style, it would be “well-intended lazy.” Thus, our aim isn’t to seek praise or induce guilt (there’s a surplus of parenting content for that). Instead, we hope to offer a practical blueprint.
In the summer of 2021, we initiated our intervention. Unbeknownst to our kids, we embarked on a two-week trip to visit friends (the Montessori, homeschooling, highly engaged kind I deeply respect). Days were filled with outdoor adventures, puzzles, art, gardening, and games. The kids, previously screen-obsessed, barely remembered their digital cravings after the initial 48 hours.
By the trip’s end, a transformation was evident. Our previously screen-addicted children reconnected with the world and were happier. And none of this was difficult. As my wife always says: children learn fast, but also adapt and forget fast.
Two years on, we’ve maintained this rhythm. We’re not 100% screen-free and don’t want to be. Saturdays are reserved for a movie treat. The girls anticipate it but aren’t consumed by the wait. We also watch some documentaries and other movies together on occasion.
This lifestyle comes, however, with a significant caveat: we couldn’t merely eliminate their digital crutch and leave a void. We learned quickly that we have to substitute it with equally, if not more, captivating alternatives.
This didn’t mean inundating them with extracurricular activities. Over-scheduling is another pitfall that undermines their well-being.
Instead, we reclaimed what YouTube had replaced. We resumed full responsibility for their engagement. This doesn’t translate to non-stop entertaining them. Instead, we ensure they have constant access to their own tools of entertainment: nature, crafts, music, puzzles, books, and most crucially, our presence. Seasons dictate our activities: snowmen in winter, seed planting in spring, lake splashes in summer, and hiking in the fall.
Admittedly, this approach is more demanding of our time and focus. But after initial efforts, we’re learning that their self-driven creativity takes over, allowing us some downtime.
Now, aged 7 and 5, our children are flourishing. Their creativity, mood stability, and connection to their surroundings have deepened. The same holds true for my wife and me – we feel more in command of our home.
In today’s screen-saturated world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But to parents everywhere, breaking the cycle is within reach. It wasn’t even hard once it got underway. Believe me, if we can do it so can you, and likely better.