When I was 15 years old, my father locked the family TV set in the basement. Literally: He put it in a padlocked storage room down there—and in the first throes of our withdrawal, my brother and I actually tried to pick that lock.
We loved TV, my brother and sister and I—way, way too much. We would stare at it, day in and out, pin-eyed, slack-jawed, the pale blue light flickering on our blank faces. Eventually, Dad became fed up. He did the deed without fanfare. One day we came home and the TV was just gone. Without warning, the “TV room” became “the spare room.”
Angrily, we confronted our father. How could he do this terrible thing with no discussion or negotiation? How were we supposed to kill time now? When kids talked about TV shows at schools how would we know what they were talking about? He said he didn’t know and didn’t care and that was the end of the discussion. So unfair!
In retrospect, locking away the TV set had to be the single most impactful “parenting decision” my father ever made. Because while bored and stumped for ideas on how to murder the hours between school and dinner and then dinner and bedtime, I discovered reading. One thing led to another, and I became a writer, a profession I’ve plied my entire adult life. And none of it would ever have happened if my father hadn’t made that unfair, awful, unilateral choice.
Now karma or kismet or whatever you want to call it has come full circle, and I’m the father of three boys, two teenagers (Nick, 17, and J.J., 14) and a tweenager (Adam, 11), all of whom are perpetually staring at some type of screen. Our TV has—actually, I have no idea how many channels. A thousand? And that’s not counting Netflix and the shows they watch online.
But it’s not just TV, of course. There are so many more options for my boys’ eyeballs, these days. In our house—let’s see if I can do an inventory—there are five phones of varying degrees of smartness (that’s not even counting the home phone, the dumbest one of all, and which no one answers anymore), four laptops, two desktops (Nick has a “gaming computer” so fast and high-powered it could probably guide a rocket to Mars), a PS-3-type gaming console and a tablet. My kids text and stream and game and Facebook, IM, You Tube, Instagram, and Lord knows what else.
Kids all seem to “binge watch” and “binge game” these days. According to Active Healthy Kids Canada, children in grades 6 to 12 in this country spend on average well in excess of seven hours a day staring at some type of screen (about 3 hours of TV, 2 hours of computer time, and the rest on video games).
But knowing my boys aren’t alone doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking to see them, inside on a sunny day, glued to some screen, or to think that I am raising a generation of non-readers. I mean, they read, but not nearly as much as I’d like, and basically view it as some kind of chore, not the joyful illumination I experience sticking my proboscis into a paperback.
All of which is why I, on a recent family vacation, decided to tear a page from my father’s (non-e-reader) book and impose a “screen diet” or “media fast” or— my personal favourite term — “technology cleanse” on my sons’ digitally obsessed derrieres.
My plan was simple. We had rented a cottage, for two weeks, that was so remote and rustic it didn’t have Internet access or even cellphone coverage. Perfect. But it did have pool-, ping-pong-, and foosball tables—all of which virtually eliminated potential rainy day complaints about nothing to do.
The deal was—well, technically, it wasn’t a “deal” at all, since like my father before me I refused to negotiate. I did inform them of the terms: Week 1, and on the ride up, they could gorge themselves on all the screen-time they wanted—which in practice meant DVDs, any shows or movies they had “archived” on their computers, plus trips to the wifi-equipped McDonald’s in town to get their social-media fix. Week 2: Nothing. Bupkes. Fun unplugged!
The first week it rained a lot, and they watched what can only be described as a butt-load of DVDs, including all eight Harry Potters—I didn’t even know there were eight (they get better as they go along, by the way). When I caught Nick watching the “making of” featurette in the DVD extras of Forrest Gump for the second time, I knew my plan was a good idea.
Then Day 1 of Week 2 dawned. I should probably say right up front we cheated starting that first night: we popped some corn and watched a movie en famille. It seemed cruel and unusual punishment to force them to go device-free all day, cold turkey, and then again at night, so I relented without needing too much persuasion.
But there was also cheating during the day, as I later discovered. I caught first J.J., then shortly thereafter Adam, actually playing games under the blankets on their phones. I know I’ve taken a semi-jocular tone writing about this, but that really saddened and upset me. It was a beautiful sunny day outside and with all the options at their disposal paddle boats, fishing rods, and even trampolines you could jump off and into the water—they still chose to play “Minecraft” on a tiny screen?
In fairness to my young screen fanatics, going cold turkey was no small feat. The boys did actually seem to go through several classic stages of addiction withdrawal: nervous, twitchy, itchy, eyes darting around, or staring ahead vacantly. In every experiment there is a Law of Unintended Consequences, and I was surprised how twitchy I became after a few days without access to my e-mail.
What if someone was trying to get in touch with me about something important? Finally, I cracked, and drove myself to the McDonald’s and checked: nothing but spam. The only one who didn’t suffer in those early days was my wife, Pam, whose career in news means constant updates and texts on her Blackberry. She said she felt “liberated” from having to check it every few minutes.
Slowly, miraculously, the rest of us turned a corner. It started with a little friendly competition. Pool is a game I happen to be good at so I issued a challenge: ten bucks to anyone who could beat me. Let the games begin! The competition got fierce and fiercer—then Nick finally beat me. It’d been a long time since I’d seen him so happy. I heard him bragging about it to his brothers. To his mother: “Hey, mom, did you hear, I…”
We played ping-pong. We went for walks. We swam. We boated. We worked out together.
Adam caught a tiny fish, and threw it back. On the shelves of the cottage we discovered an obscure old board game called “Scotland Yard,” in which players, as police, try to chase a criminal named Mr. X through the streets of London, using only the subways or taxis, for some reason. We had a blast!
The tenor of our interactions changed, as well. A Guardian writer quotes her child at the end of a screen diet: “It’s the difference between sitting on the sofa with a screen and you shouting at us all, or sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea and chatting with you.” That’s how I felt, too.
Suddenly I was less their boss, more their friend—like when they were younger and we used to wrestle and fight and do other things in the real, analog aka non-digital world.
And…they read. And if you don’t think the sight of my boys, all silent, with their snouts plunged in a paperback did my old ticker a world of good, I haven’t been doing my job.
Basically, I loved it all. “Thank God that long Amish nightmare is over,” Phil, the father in Modern Family, says when their week-long screen diet ends. But I don’t feel that way. Of course, when we got back home, they dived straight into their basement lair, and went back to their “first person shooters” and all the rest of it with a vengeance.
Still, some things have changed. This fall, Pam and I have severely limited screen-time during the week. Their grades have come up. Our interactions are more egalitarian and friction-free. It’s a never-ending battle, of course, full of back-sliding and slip-ups, but it’s a battle I will continue happily to fight.