It’s Okay to be Different
How we learned to be a ScreenStrong Family in a screen addicted world.
by Julie Christian, ScreenStrong Ambassador
“I don’t want to go to school today,” my 10-year-old son whined. Jacob was the most naturally curious of my three children. He loved going to school. His words were a warning that something was amiss.
“Why don’t you want to go to school?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t have any friends.” His face remained downcast as he picked at his fingers.
“What about Peter?” Peter had come over to our house for a few days over the summer when his mother had to work. Back then they were best friends.
“Peter is a popular boy now. He plays Fortnite. So do all the other kids. They don’t want to be friends with me because I don’t play it.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Just a year before, Peter had been the new boy at school who moved from another school because he had been bullied. And now, he was accepted into a group of boys who spent most of their free time outside of school gaming, and their free time in school making fun of my non-gaming child.
It was early in my screen-free journey, and I was tempted to acquiesce. A Minecraft birthday party invitation came home with my son one day, and when I inquired, I was told that they would be playing video games at the party. My son was invited to another boys’ house to play video games with a group of kids from his class. I declined both invitations. These decisions did nothing to increase my son’s popularity.
But I was committed, even if it meant my son lost friends faster than his ex-friends could press the fire button on a game controller. I had removed screens near the end of his third-grade year. There were so many positive benefits from the change, that I couldn’t fathom going back to the way things were. In only a few months without screens, Jacob’s reading skills increased by more than a grade level. His brother’s tantrums diminished and then disappeared. Our lives became almost normal, and more peaceful. If my son was unpopular, I thought, so be it.
Then, the other parents began treating me with the same skepticism. Even my mother and father were critical of my choices. It was difficult for my husband and I to stand firm in our commitment, but we had seen the difference in our children and our family. My husband, a juvenile probation officer, had seen the impact of years of gaming and screen use in his caseload of juveniles. We had been given a glimpse of the future, and we chose not to allow our sons to go down that path.
After much thought, and quite a bit of prayer, I realized that we live in a society where social media, video games, movies and other screen-based entertainment penetrates every aspect of our lives. Adults and kids share lives that revolve around consumption of massive amounts of screen-based entertainment. Most of our social engagements begin and end with discussions about social media, movies and what we’ve watched or plan to watch.
If I continue to eschew these things, my kids will always be the “odd” kids in the class at school who don’t know the latest Fornite dances, or who don’t watch the most popular YouTube channels. My kids won’t know about the latest TikTok trends, and they won’t be notified of social gatherings via Snapchat.
They will not be popular. And I had to force myself to be okay with that. With no access to screens, they most likely will never be the “cool kids” at their school.
I thought back to my own childhood. Had I been one of those “cool kids?” In hindsight, I think my friends and I were pretty cool, and we all turned out to be cool adults for sure, but we certainly were not part of the in crowd. But being in the popular crowd isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I realized I didn’t need to take steps to make my kids cooler, I needed to begin educating my kids on why being uncool in today’s society is better.
We are a different family. What matters to us is different than what matters to other families. And because of that, my kids are always going to be different than other kids. And because we keep them away from screens, and fill their lives with other, more beneficial activities to replace that time, they are always going to stand out.
I am more than three years into this journey, and it is true. Being a ScreenStrong family has closed some doors, but opened many others. Our kids don’t participate in popular “gaming” clubs, and they aren’t in on the conversations with their peers on social media. But what they are doing is inviting their friends over to celebrate their birthday in their cool new treehouse that they built themselves. They are lending out books to neighborhood kids, and sharing sidewalk chalk with the girls across the street.
Over time, my children stopped worrying about their popularity, because they were so busy doing the things that kids are supposed to do, they forgot to care. They came home exhausted, with scuffed knees, dirty clothes and lots of stories to share with us.
In the beginning of this journey, there were parents who smiled to our faces and then criticized us behind our backs. But those same parents began to experience the negative consequences of screen time and excessive gaming in their own homes. Family members who told us we’d taken things too far began to witness an appreciable difference between our children and the children of our relatives who hadn’t made the same changes.
Over time, the same parents who “tsk-tsked” at our extreme choice secretly came to us with their embarrassing stories. One mom’s 11-year-old daughter posted provocative dances on TikTok. One relative’s son dropped out of college after losing his scholarship because he stayed up all night gaming.
The same people who complained about how different I was forcing my children to be, were now complimenting us on our children’s behavior and wishing their kids were a little less like everyone else’s. People in church came up to us to tell us how kind and respectful our little boys were. My oldest son started coming home with cards and letters from his teachers thanking him for his hard work and pleasant attitude in school.
My boys are in middle school now, and sometimes it is difficult for them to begin friendships when they don’t have the common ground of a smartphone or video games. But they’ve learned a valuable lesson.
It’s okay to be different.
Life is not a popularity contest and someday, how many friends come to their birthday party on a Saturday afternoon won’t matter. What will matter is what they stand for and what they work hard to accomplish. And the interesting thing is, that when they stand for and accomplish positive things, more and more people want to be their friend.
My children are different in a good way. They are becoming the thinkers and leaders of tomorrow. And eventually, when the kids busy playing with their screens want to be friends with my kids, there’s plenty of room in our treehouse.
Take the first step to become a ScreenStrong Family!
We have your back! You’re invited to take our free ScreenStrong Challenge. Hit the pause button on phones just for one week and see how your family can reconnect with one another. It’s easier than you think! Invite a friend to take the challenge with you and we will help you every step of the way.
Wondering if your child is at-risk for screen dependency or you want more scientific facts about kids’ brains and screens? Take our assessment!
Julie Christian is a ScreenStrong Ambassador and mom of four children, ages 10,11,19 and 29. She is married to the man of her dreams, Mike Christian, and she has completed two novels from her home in southwest Florida.