Like most families I know, we are constantly negotiating screen time. For me, my phone provides adult interaction in a day full of Batman and Lego and watching card tricks and somersaults in the pool. But I also know when I sit down with my phone ‘for just a sec,’ it often turns into 15 minutes of aimless scrolling. OK, really 30 minutes, maybe more. How long is an episode of Ninjago? Maybe two episodes. About that long.
When they get home from camp or our adventures in the city, my sons are hot and tired and a little sick of each other, and of me. All they want are their screens. Left to their own devices, so to speak, they don’t talk to me, to each other, to their dad when he arrives home and says hello. They are hypnotized. I felt the irony of limiting their tablet time while I hid in the kitchen or sneaked into the bathroom to scroll through Instagram or check Facebook for the umpteenth time that day.
Clearly we all have a problem. And we are not alone.
A 2017 comScore study reported that Americans spend nearly three hours a day on their cell phones. There are several apps to monitor phone usage and report how often you use Facebook, Instagram, email, and messaging. One application says that people underestimate personal device use by 50 percent, and this made me cringe with guilt over my own use.
Despite knowing the awful truth, I was stumped in my search for ways to break these screen habits. Then I remembered the long, lazy afternoons my husband and I spent in Spain on our honeymoon. The bustling little town of Tossa de Mar nearly shut down for siesta every afternoon. It was magical, like the volume of everything was simply turned down for a few hours.
That’s what they need: A technology siesta. This summer I instituted an hour of no-technology, quiet time every afternoon for my boys to read, sleep, play quietly, whatever they want, as long as it’s in their own room. “Summer Siesta!” I declared, as the kids looked up from their screens, puzzled at my enthusiastic outburst. Get your favorite books and toys, I said, scooting them upstairs to their rooms. See you in an hour.
The first few days of siesta were admittedly rough – they checked on the time every three minutes, wandered around, made multiple bathroom trips, did water cup refills, checked the time again.
As routines do, after a few days things settled down. The kids relaxed into this hour of solitude and emerged calmer and happy to see me and each other, ready for the evening’s events. The promise of screen time after a successful (i.e. quiet) siesta didn’t hurt either. The idea seemed to be working: My boys were decompressing in ways of their own design. I expected this break would be good for the kids.
What I didn’t expect was how good it would be for me.
The first few days I did the Mom equivalent of the kids’ restless behavior: I packed in every household task I could during that hour from scrubbing toilets to making much-avoided phone calls to binging on Facebook or Instagram. At the end of the ‘Siesta,’ I was not only unrested, I was frazzled and more tired than before. I was even jealous that they were sent away to read and rest while I went into manic housewife mode.
I took my own advice and unplugged.
A recent article in The Atlantic warned that adults should be less worried about how much our kids use screens, and instead focus on our own escalating addiction. Tuned-out parents, as they call them, are less emotionally engaged with kids due to the interrupted nature of smart phone interactions.
Now I use siesta time as a guilt-free hour for napping, reading actual books, writing (with pen, on paper), or (attempting) meditation. I might make an important phone call or two, but I limit the ‘chores’ to the first 15 minutes. After that, no more. The phone goes on airplane mode, the screens are closed. The first day I felt guilty as I painted my toe nails or quietly read my book group book before the night before our monthly get-together. When I felt my eyelids getting heavy, I put it down on my chest and closed my eyes.
When the timer went off to release us all from our Luddite state, I was calmer and happier, too, ready to take on dinner and the rest of the day. The boys hugged me hello when I opened their doors. I was ready get back in the game and my kids had my full attention, uninterrupted by my distracting screen (or theirs). The evenings following these breaks are peaceful and we all like each other so much more after a little respite from each other.
Siestas are a start, but screen time remains a tricky balancing act. It has been enlightening to see how a break from the devices has been a change in the right direction. I’ve realized that it’s all about moderation, for all of us. I’m hoping my kids learn that there’s an appropriate time for screens, for family, and even to be alone with just your thoughts and maybe a good book.
Or even a guilt free nap.
This essay originally appeared in Fete Lifestyle Magazine, July 2018.