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Going 'Screen Free' vs. Getting 'Screen Smart'

Today, the concept of "screen time" is complex, and navigating a multiplying array of devices and the accompanying flood of content demands media literacy.
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April 30 - May 6 is "Screen-Free Week," intended to help families "break the screen habit." Unfortunately, by emphasizing "break" rather than "manage," this annual event doesn't promote wise family media habits any more than "Eat Nothing Week" would foster healthy diets.

When it was established in 1994, "TV Turnoff Week" might have been a more effective tool. Cable channels were proliferating and hours of children's programming grew with them; however, TV was still one-directional and, in the days before DVR, unplugging the television for a week represented real sacrifice, since a program missed was gone forever, or at least until a repeat season.

Today, the concept of "screen time" is complex, and navigating a multiplying array of devices and the accompanying flood of content demands media literacy. Families (as well as schools and child care centers) need tools for mindful evaluation of habits and strategies for making thoughtful choices. They need prompts for productive co-viewing or co-play, and vocabulary for discussing what they do consume or create. "Just say no" may foster self-control, but it does little for critical thinking.

The tyranny of the scheduler is a thing of the past. The audience controls what, when and where it consumes content. DVRs capture TV for at-will viewing, but if you forget to set it, there's always Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, streaming from the channel's website and multiple other options.

Away from home? There's an app for that. A recent study by Viacom found that as much as 15 percent of full-episode TV viewing now takes place on a tablet.

So, no worries: anything missed by going screen free can be caught up with later. In the DVR/streaming/tablet era, a weeklong media fast, as with a crash food diet, is likely only to prompt binging afterward.

Increasingly, young people's content of choice doesn't come from mainstream channels, but from YouTube and similar sites, where they find an almost unlimited range of professional and user-generated content. This is revolutionary and beneficial for individuals who are uninterested in mass-audience programming but captivated by niche channels that speak to their particular passion. The shut-off becomes a cut-off, barring access to valuable learning resources and community.

Moreover, today's young people aren't limited to consuming media. Are tomorrow's Lucases and Spielbergs required to shut down Final Cut Pro (or, for younger kids on tablets, Toontastic or Doodlecast) during "Screen-Free Week"?

What "Screen-Free Week" and its supporters miss is that a screen is not a screen is not a screen. The various devices in our lives are tools, and we come to them for fulfillment of unique needs, interests and gratifications -- learning, communication, community, information, creation, exploration, challenge, and yes, entertainment.

Of course, there can be misuse. New statistics reveal that American children are exposed to amazing amounts of background TV, and ubiquitous devices certainly lead to temptation (if not nagging) for incessant use. These problems don't magically disappear because you suppress them for a week, however, any more than shunning books would improve your child's taste in literature.

For these challenges, there are a plethora of organizations providing thoughtful and specific tools to evaluate multi-screen content, develop media literacy skill, manage online safety and otherwise take control of technology. These teach families how to negotiate media, not just forswear it.

The "Screen Free Week" organizers provide a well-intentioned list of ideas and venues for family play, but they position them as distractions from media time. If we flip the switch, and lead by promoting these intrinsically fun ideas instead of a once-a-year purge, we can do far more toward keeping families lives in balance every day.