How One Family Manages Technology

“I’m not sure you want to interview us,” Sharron Hanisch said with a laugh. “We don’t even have cable!”

Sharron, a stay-at-home mom who has a master’s degree in Theological Studies from Boston College, and her husband John, a computer consultant, are parents to four children, Matt, 16; Anna, 14; Michael, 12; and Noah, 8.

“When John and I got married, we made a conscious decision not to have a TV,” Sharron said. “We thought it was more important to get out and do things instead of just sit and watch TV.” Both Sharron and John grew up in families with the TV on in the background all the time. “We both enjoyed TV—we were almost addicted to it—but when I was in grad school, there was support for giving up TV altogether. TV appeared mind-numbing and lacking any real substantial information to those who viewed themselves as intellectually curious. We jumped on the bandwagon.”

But after the birth of their second child, they reconsidered their stance. “When Matt was 2 and I was trying to nurse Anna, I didn’t want Matt wandering around the house, so we bought a TV and some Barney videos.”

As their family grew, videos, computers, iPhones and an Xbox were added to the family’s tech menu, but they decided against cable. “There are some redeeming things on cable,” Sharron admitted. “We just decided not to have it. We didn’t want our kids bombarded with commercials and other inappropriate stuff, and so, with our busy schedules and our priorities (family and faith), we limit TV.”

The children are involved in cross-country, basketball, football, tumbling and Tae Kwon Do. Sharron said that she and John would much rather sit down to a family dinner, play a game with the kids or have family devotionals than watch TV.

In an average school week, the Hanisch kids don’t watch TV or play video games. “There’s no screen time,” Sharron said. “They do their homework [all four children are A students] and practice their sport.” But she admits to some flexibility. “If they are all done with homework and practice, they may have 30 minutes of screen time.” She said that on weekends screen time is “unlimited,” but is quick to add that their busy schedule of extracurricular activities doesn’t leave much time for vegging on the couch.

“In the summer we have a three-hour limit to screens—that includes everything: computer, TV, X-Box.” What do they do in the summer if they aren’t on screens? “They play together,” she said, adding, “Last summer Matt had a job, went on a mission trip, and kept up with his running, he’s on the cross country team at Bishop Kelley. Anna babysat and had a cupcake business with my mom. All the kids have neighborhood friends they play with. And, they spent a lot of time making movies!” she added, laughing at the irony.

“They also read a lot,” Sharron said. “We did a lot of reading [when they were preschoolers] because we didn’t have the TV on. I started teaching them letters at a very young age. They were all sounding out words before they were three and reading before they were four.”

And how do the kids feel about not having cable? “When I was younger I would have said, ‘I want cable!’ but now I like it,” Anna said. “Since we didn’t watch TV, we did more creative things together.”

“I made a puppet!” piped up Noah. Sharron added that Noah read a book about puppets, and then wanted to buy the materials to make his own.

“If it’s not pouring rain, I’ll go out and shoot baskets,” Michael said. “I might not think it was fun at first, but then once I’m out there it’s more fun than just sitting and watching TV.”  He does admit he’d like to be able to watch ESPN. “Some technology is good,” Noah said, “but if you have too much it can interfere.”

“You shouldn’t let technology become more important than your relationships,” Anna added. “One time my friend and I were hanging out [both on screens] and we looked up and were shocked that so much time had gone by and we hadn’t even talked to each other!”

Sharron says she and her husband aren’t against good quality media, and are constantly revisiting their screen time policy as their family grows and changes, and as technology grows and changes. “The X-Box can be a good outlet,” Sharron said, “but we are particular about the games.”

She refuses to let games such as the popular Call of Duty: Black Ops and Assassin’s Creed into the home. “I don’t think my kids have a single friend whose parents restrict these,” Sharron said. “It’s my one last stand! I do not like the sexualization of women, and I don’t like the violence.”

Sharron said she and John hope to instill character in their children. “I want them to respect human dignity and human life. Allowing those kind of games would compromise my own integrity,” she added. “And I think my kids might be disappointed in me if I gave in.”

Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness, 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, writes, “Research demonstrates a strong link between happiness and not watching television. Sociologists show that happier people tend to watch considerably less television than unhappy people. We don’t know whether TV makes people unhappy, or if already unhappy people watch more TV. But we do know that there are a lot of activities that will help kids develop into happy, well-adjusted individuals. If our kids are watching TV, they aren’t doing those things that could be making them happier in the long run.”

Break the TV Habit

Parenting expert, Michelle Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, offers the following tips for helping your family break the TV habit:

1. Check your whole family’s TV viewing habits. Keep a diary of all family members viewing habits.

2. Commit your family to change. Help your family understand that you are serious about breaking this bad habit:

a. Talk to your family about the bad effects of addiction and good effects of moderation.

b. Enforce a policy of 100 percent TV abstinence for a month or two (no kidding) and don’t give up.

c. Unplug the television. Some families actually lock their sets in a closet.

d. Find healthy alternatives and substitute positive alternatives [that do not include other screens!]: board games, card games, music, hobbies, knitting, yoga, drawing, go for a walk during previous viewing times, join the YMCA or a gym, go to the library, ride bikes, play basketball. The ideas are endless!

3. Set limits on screen time. Once your kids are weaned from constant viewing, set a limit as to the maximum number of viewing hours each day and stick to it.

4. Establish TV-free hours such as during dinner and from six to eight in the evening when kids are usually doing homework.

5. Specify one night a week (or all school nights) as no-TV nights.

6. Be selective as to content.

7. Do not allow TVs in bedrooms! Kids who have TVs in their bedrooms watch an average of 286 hours more per year than kids who don’t. Research shows that kids who had TVs in their bedrooms had lower school achievement, and it is difficult to monitor what your kid is watching or for how long when he is watching alone in his room.

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