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Kids swear off screens for week in mental health initiative at Ann Arbor-area school

Ann Arbor News - 5/16/2019

May 16-- May 16--LODI TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- Taking a break from screens for a full week may seem like a tall task for kids in 2019.

But to the surprise of Emerson School students asked to do just that, it was easier than expected, said Emerson health instructor Abbie Lawrence-Jacobson.

"Screen-Free Week" is an initiative in schools across the country that urges students to take a week away from all non-academic screen activity, including TV, social media, video games and texting. The week is organized nationally by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

A total of 112 students at Emerson School in Lodi Township tried to abstain from screens from April 29 through May 3. Parents and faculty also took part. Jacobson was the faculty member who brought the national initiative to Emerson.

Surveys that Jacobson conducted following the week showed students found the endeavor easier than expected.

Some of the students' notes included: "How easy it was to go screen-free," "I thought it would be so hard, but as the week was passing, it got easier," and "I actually don't reach for devices as much as I thought."

When Jacobson was searching for content for a unit in her health class that focused on healthy media interactions, she found the screen-free national initiative fit perfectly with what she wanted to teach.

Most of the participants in the screen-free week were in seventh grade, Jacobson said.

Emerson, a private K-8 school, supplies second-grade students with Chromebook laptops that they use for academic purposes and must leave at school.

When students enter fifth grade, they are required to start bringing their own laptops.

Emerson first grade student Aryo Yazdi, who is 7 years old, was the youngest student to abstain from screens for a full week.

His incentive, he said, was winning a prize, which he did: A gift card to The M-Den store.

While taking a week away, Aryo said he was able to do things he'd long forgot about while distracted by the TV or his iPad.

"It was sort of boring because I like the TV, but I had a lot of fun playing board games and playing legos, too," he said. "I learned that it is good to not watch TV every single day. (I would do it again) because I can get to play with my legos more often, and when I watch TV I forget about playing (with toys.)"

In the morning, he said, he and his family spoke to each other more without devices in hand.

"Most of (children's) entertainment comes from TV, video games, phones or apps, and I think that was a good opportunity for them just to see that there are other ways to entertain themselves," said Haleh Najafi, Aryo's mother, who also participated in the week.

She said the week gave the family a chance to communicate more.

"All-in-all, I think it's a good experience -- just to take a step back and think about things, and connect with each other more than just being on our phones or iPads," she said. "(My husband and I) thought it was a good opportunity for us too."

One of the topics discussed in Jacobson's health class was addictive design, she said. Students learned how many devices and applications are designed to keep users attached and coming back, she added.

"They learned about the different features that keep them wanting more," Jacobson said. "We learned about the actual biochemical processes in the brain that keep you wanting more -- the little dopamine hits you get when you see an alert on your phone. Then we talked about the mental health affects that can come from being immersed in the world of social media."

Students learned about the effects of social media on mental health. In survey responses, Jacobson said her students responded in large numbers that when using social media, they experienced "the fear of missing out."

"They see friends getting together without them and they feel like 'Why wasn't I invited?'" Jacobson said.

Other students, she said, admitted they had bouts with anxiety or depression, and feel social media played a role.

Students self-reported the time they spent screen-free every day, she said. Those who participated were entered into a raffle drawing for various prizes.

Jacobson said Emerson wants to make screen-free week an annual initiative.

"(This initiative) underscores our dedication to the whole child," Jacobson said. "So, we're not only a school that values academics and intellectual achievements -- we value their whole well-being because we know their whole well-being influences what they're able to absorb academically."

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