We weren’t always an unplugged family. When our kids were babies, we had two TV's, a DVD player, a VCR, and a laptop. We looked forward to raising our kids with technology, imagining their little fingers typing in search terms for redwood forests, space flight, Harry Potter, and brownie recipes.
We pictured their innocent public-TV-watching faces gazing up at the screen, soaking in all there is to know about pyramids, brushing up on consonants and vowels, and getting a toe hold in Spanish.
But reality was different. As our children grew, their jaws went slack. Their glazed-over eyes could focus on a screen game but never on a living human face. Their squabbles turned nasty with shocking speed, usually over plastic toys from McDonald’s we didn’t want followed by lobbying for trips to Disney World we couldn’t afford.
So two years ago we "freecycled" the TV, junked the DVD player, and locked up the laptop. We put our kids, then 5- and 8-years old, respectively, in the Washington Waldorf School. There’s no technology in the classroom there until high school, and children are discouraged from watching TV or using computers and mobile devices at home until at least 4th grade.
Deprived of their screens our kids were at first frustrated and a bit angry. But soon enough they began spending time jumping on the neighbor’s trampoline, collecting rocks, and bike riding. Our daughter, who always liked to read, started checking out more books from the library and plinking on the piano. Our son tackled complicated art projects and long sessions with his toys.
But the biggest surprise of all was the effect on us, the parents -- you know, the ones with the mature brains? With hardly any screen time at home, we became less irritable, less distracted, and more present.
Lots of studies have linked the ability to play imaginatively and read deeply to success in school. On the other hand, some neuroscientists now warn that children’s developing brains are becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks. And many adults report when they're online all day long they feel stressed.
I find technology fun and useful, but after a full day on the computer, when I walk in the door I’d spend time with my kids kicking a ball or building Legos -- not playing Angry Birds.
Bonnie Auslander is director of the Kogod Center for Business Communications at American University. WAMU is licensed to American University.