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Mom says she banned screens, and now her kids read all the time

Nov. 20, 2019
Mom says she banned screens, and now her kids read all the time
Image via Molly DeFrank

For parents, screens can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, they provide quick entertainment in a busy doctor’s office waiting room or when the restaurant forgot your order. On the other hand, it can be unsettling to watch your kids become tiny screen addicts, and it seems like new research comes out every day that warns parents about the dangers of screens. So, what’s a parent to do? 

Well, if you’re like mom of five Molly DeFrank, you might just decide to ban screen time altogether. She put her family on a full-time “screen detox,” and she says they’re never going back.

In a viral post on Facebook, DeFrank shared a photo of her kids reading in bed on a Saturday morning and wrote, “We did not stage this photo. Months ago we removed screen time from our kids. Why? Because my precious babies were acting like demogorgons. And Mama don't play.”

DeFrank is a mom and foster mom to five kids who are ages 4 to 10. In a blog post about her screen detox, she wrote that she and her husband used to allow about an hour of screen time per day, but when she got home from running errands one afternoon and was greeted by her kindergartener begging to play games on her cell phone, that was “the last straw.” She and her husband sat the kids down and told them there would be no more screen time for the next 30 days — no phones, no tablets, no TV.

“When we first told them over dinner one night, they were not happy,” DeFrank tells Care.com. “There were tears. But after a little while, we all moved on. And by the next day, it wasn’t even an issue because the kids knew not to ask.”

Without being able to zone out in front of screens, she says her kids rediscovered their creativity. They started cooperating better and dreaming up imaginative play scenarios that they could all participate in. 

“The adjustment was not nearly as difficult as we expected,” she says. “They started finding their own solutions to boredom, which included things like reading and creating and playing outside together.”

The screen detox worked so well that when the initial 30 days was over, she and her husband decided to keep it going — with some slight changes to the rules. 

“We knew we didn’t want to go back to the way it was, but we also knew that we aren’t living in a bubble, so we were trying to figure out the best place for screens in our home,” she tells Care.com. “We landed on one hour, once a week on Sundays. Screens are no longer a part of my kids’ daily lives. On occasion, we have done a family movie night.”

In seven months, DeFrank says her kids’ reading skills have improved drastically, and her third-grader is now doing math problems for fun. 

“I keep a stack [of math workbooks] in the kitchen, and he brings a workbook with him on road trips,” she says. “He’s doing great in math at school, too. Last night my first-grader asked my third-grader to write math problems for him. They worked together for about 30 minutes. It was really fun to watch.”

DeFrank’s Facebook and blog posts have resonated with other parents who feel stressed about screens. Since she shared her family’s screen time solution on Nov. 7, her Facebook post has been shared over 6,000 times, and it has thousands of comments from other parents gushing praise or talking about their own screen-free successes.

One commenter wrote: “We have not had a television in 12 years. My kids are 7, 5 and 2 and they all love reading. Oldest is an absolute bookworm. THIS is the best advice I can give to parents: Go screen free! My children are creative with fantastic imaginations, and they even teach me a thing or two about life away from screens.”

But there was some pushback from parents who don’t think a screen detox would work for them. 

“Fair enough,” one person says. “Tough when your child is alone with no sibling to play with tho. [sic]”

Another said they’d love to try a screen detox, but having kids surrounded by screens and media, even at school, makes it tough. 

“Our kids are in public school and are surrounded by kids who have cell phones, tablets and everything else,” the commenter says. “They do all of their learning on tablets. Then, they come home and throw attitudes because everyone else gets technology and they don't.”

Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends an hour or less of screen time per day for kids ages 2 to 5, and no screen time for kids under 2. They do note that educational screen time can have some benefits for kids under 2, but they don’t recommend using those resources until a child is at least 18 months old. For children older than 5, the guideline is simply to balance screen time with other healthy activities, such as reading and exercise.

Recent research also shows that even small amounts of screen time could have a big impact on children’s brains. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this month showed that children ages 3 to 5 who use screens for longer than the recommended hour a day without parental involvement had less development in the white matter area of their brains. White matter, according to the study, is an area key to the development of language, literacy and cognitive skills.

A separate study in March 2019, linked mobile phone and tablet use to expressive language delays in 18-month-old children. And another study published in April 2019, found that screen time use longer than 30 minutes is associated with a reduced attention span in preschoolers

Does that mean we should all be banning screens? Not necessarily. The Mayo Clinic notes that “passive screen time” is the main issue to be concerned about. When kids are watching shows with movement, music and stories, and when parents are involved in screen time, kids are more likely to see an educational benefit. They also recommend following the AAP guidelines, as well as avoiding fast-paced shows and apps that young children can have a difficult time understanding.

Ultimately, every parent has to find the screen solution that works best for their family, and that’s exactly what DeFrank and her husband wanted to do. 

“It seems like a lot of parents are in the same boat,” she tells Care.com. “So much new technology has come into our homes faster than we can decide if it should, and to what extent … I think the bottom line is how can we, as parents, navigate the unprecedented access our kids have to technology? That’s what we are all trying to do. I hope that other parents are encouraged knowing that it’s never too late for a course correction if they feel like the balance is not there.”

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