Could you go an entire week without using a screen?

It's a tough test, to be sure, but Edina business owner Matt Steinman is challenging Twin Cities families to give it a try, starting Monday.

Steinman's public push, which promotes Screen-Free Week, comes after a decision to make changes in his family's screen habits.

Steinman and his wife, the Coven co-founder Alex West Steinman, are entrepreneurs who are tied to their phones, and have two kids under 5 with a penchant for PBS Kids' "Wild Kratts." They realized screen time was spilling over into family time way too often.

About six months ago, they put a plan in place: Weekday evenings, from the time they pick up the kids from day care to when they go to sleep, are entirely screen-free. So are most Sunday family outings.

"It's amazing, honestly, the difference that a couple hours a day makes," said Steinman, who runs Missing Pieces Escape Games.

At first, the kids weren't exactly on board. "There were a couple of fits thrown," Steinman said. "But now they don't even ask about it, they will just grab books and read, or they will dive into an imaginary game and play together for hours.

"We know that they are forming their habits based off the impression they're getting from us. So my wife and I took a step back and created a plan on how we could get that balance back."

So when Steinman saw information about the national Screen-Free Week, which runs through May 5, he decided to try to give the annual digital detox a bigger presence in the Twin Cities. He is calling on local folks to pledge (online here) to go screen-free all week, outside of work or school, of course.

The escape room he owns is a screen-free zone (all devices go into a bucket before play begins), and he sought out other like-minded area businesses and institutions — including Children's Theatre Company, the Bell Museum and YogaFit Studios — to offer deals and the chance to win prizes for people participating.

Screen-Free Week began as TV Turnoff Week in the 1990s. Now run by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, tens of thousands participated last year, according to the group's outreach coordinator. In Minnesota, several schools and businesses, including Steinman's, have signed on to organize events and challenges. For example, a teacher at St. Paul's Mounds Park Academy promised to color his hair pink if 45 students participate and "survive" the screen fast.

Turning off the TV was hard enough a few decades ago, but now that we carry electronic gadgets around with us at all times, adults and kids who want to reduce their screen time find it so difficult that they are turning to experts for help.

Folks such as Cal Newport, the Georgetown University professor behind the bestselling book "Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World," are popularizing the idea of an "analog cure" to help people reclaim their leisure time for high-quality, nondigital pursuits such as journaling, meeting up with people in real life and playing with their kids without being distracted by a phone.

In the Twin Cities, Steinman is hoping to showcase "analog" options for fun. "The drive here was to say that we as a community can offer a lot of really great things to do and experience that are screen-free, just to help people take a step back, maybe, and realize how much time they spend in front of screens," he said.

Creating development issues

Many adults need screens for work, of course, but devices and televisions are also eating up an incredible amount of our personal time. A recent Nielsen report found that U.S. adults are spending 10.5 hours a day consuming media.

For kids, reducing screen time can bring real health and developmental benefits, according to Children's Minnesota's Dr. Gigi Chawla, who said excessive screen time can lead to insufficient sleep, anxiety and depression in kids.

Chawla, chief of general pediatrics at Children's, said she endorses challenges such as Screen-Free Week.

"I think the result for kids would be tremendous," she said. But she understands that it may end up being harder for parents than for kids.

"Very frequently, the challenge from a parent standpoint is that they can't release their screen. And they are their kids' model," she said. "If you're on your phone Facebooking, or answering e-mails, that's exactly what your child is seeing, and they want to emulate you.

"You can see it, even by age 1, you have all these little 1-year-old kids coming in for their checkup, and they will pick up anything that even remotely has the shape of a phone, and they will pretend to be texting," she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all (except video-chatting) for kids younger than 18 months, and tells parents to limit screen use to one hour a day or less for kids up to 5 years old. There are no specific time limits for kids 6 and older, but the academy cautions that even teens need nine hours of sleep a night, and that screen time often intrudes. The World Health Organization also weighed in for the first time this month, recommending similar restrictions, including zero screen time until over one year old.

"In the teen population, there's increasing evidence that as screen time increases, so does depression, and so does anxiety," Chawla said. "There certainly is evidence that some of the health impacts of getting insufficient sleep are tied to things like obesity, or even coronary heart disease. Or hypertension as an adult."

For little kids, the issues are more developmental, she said. Toddlers who become used to being handed a screen when they get upset (to squelch a tantrum before it starts) can have trouble as they get older if they haven't developed other strategies for calming down.

"By more easily reaching for something that's a screen, you're really closing and narrowing the path for what creativity your child may develop. Whereas, a child's imagination can really be captured by literally anything," Chawla said.

"Be your child's greatest toy and playmate," she encouraged parents.

Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726