The Vancouver Sun By Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshal 14 April 2011

The prospect of a screen-free week is now as daunting to most adults as it is to the kids it was first invented to reach. Ever since its organizers abandoned Turn Off The TV Week and replaced it with the scarier prospect of turning off ALL screens (including laptops, desktop computers and smart phones), resistance has risen along with the stakes.

Today’s average home has many more screens than people. Youth spend up to 50 hours a week watching TV, texting friends, doing homework on their laptops and gaming. Ever wonder what might happen if we unplugged them all?

April 18-24 gives us a chance to find out, as families are encouraged to disconnect the screens in their lives, and reconnect with one another.

We support Screen Free Week, but not for the reasons you might think; for instance, that kids play too much Grand Theft Auto and not enough hockey, that the imaginations of youth are being eroded by pop culture obsessions like Twilight, or that screen time takes away from family time.

These are, indeed, all good reasons to turn off our screens. Some of us may welcome the challenge to leave our smart phone at home, power down the computer and unplug the TV. But Screen Free Week is also an opportunity to consider our relationship with media and the marketing activities that underlie them. Turning off our screens is just the first step to understanding how implicated technology is in every aspect of our lives and might allow us fresh eyes to separate the garbage from the good.

Can you recall the last day you or your kids spent without plugging in? A 2010 Kaiser Family Institute study reports that youth aged 8-18 spend 7.5 hours a day with media. While they may be Facebooking, many of our university students use their laptops to take notes in class and look up content relevant to our discussions. Some students tell us that the only way to access their shift schedules for work is via their employer’s website.

But much screen time is not so benign. Screens are key tools for marketing to children -at home and increasingly at school. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, children aged 2-11 view at least 25,000 advertisements a year on TV alone -and that doesn’t include product placements (like the Twilight series ring that Edward gave Bella, available now at price points ranging from $35 to $2,000). More often than not, these ads teach children that the route to happiness is through consumption and robust participation in the world of commodities.

And just like Bella, cash-strapped schools are entertaining dangerous marriages with marketing companies. Toronto is the latest North American school district to consider a corporate media presence in exchange for sorely needed funds. Their decision not to renew a pilot project that gave Toronto high schools free screens acknowledges how donations, even if they claim to be “non-commercial,” often include soft marketing to kids. (In this case, corporations could not directly advertise but, for example, could include their logos on material scrolling on the screens).

Some might argue that the idea of a week without TVs or computers merely romanticizes our lives before technology, and that corporate sponsorships are a good way for schools to become independent of the public purse.

But here’s the problem with the market model applied to public schools: The role of a school isn’t to make a profit or to sell corporations access to captive consumers: Our children. It’s to prepare students for citizenship, to develop the skills they need to shepherd a democratic and just society.

Remember Kid Nation, the reality show where 40 children were taken to a ghost town and invited to imagine and create an ideal society? Unfortunately, they were first organized into teams of upper class, labourers, cooks and merchants, with unequal paycheques, chores and goodies. This exercise effectively chained their imaginations to the norms of capitalist society.

Schools ought to be places where we take the Kid Nation social experiment seriously, where we invite students to imagine a better society and better world. Where the baggage of adult society is minimized.

The conversation about media must extend beyond a simplistic either/or framework: Where on the one hand, screen time is all bad and innocent children need to be protected from the harms of corporate culture; while on the other hand, screen time is unproblematic because it’s life in the real world, and corporations are a part of that reality.

So from April 18 to 24, let’s hit the pause button on our screen machines, and use the time to reconnect with friends and families.

While we’re at it, let’s make this a time to reconsider our relationship with our media-saturated society and to ask whether these media support or undermine the democratic values we espouse.

Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall are professors in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. They are editors of the book, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media.