The anxiously awaited arrival of warm weather brings to mind thoughts of endless sunny days, trips to the beach, and plenty of free-wheeling, good old-fashioned fun. Unfortunately for many modern parents, summer also means something else: An even bigger battle with a distinctly 21st century foe: Digital screens. Wondering how you’re going to get through the season ahead while keeping screen time — and sanity levels — in check? We’ve got you covered with this comprehensive guide to all things summer and screen time.
Step 1: Understand that screens are part of your kids’ lives
Many parents start the summer with grand plans of “getting away from it all” by completely eliminating screens during the summer. This usually lasts about 25 minutes. Why? Because not only are screens now inextricably part of contemporary kids’ lives but let’s face it — you need to get something done every once in awhile, and that’s not going to happen if you end up (1) in constant conflict with your children and/or (2) assuming complete and total responsibility for keeping them entertained for the next three months.
Sure, some experts recommend conducting an “electronic fast.” While “detoxing” for a pre-set period of time can have benefits — particularly if screen times are interfering with healthy sleep and/or causing kids to become irritable — it can also end up doing more harm than good. Why? Because just as kids — and maybe even adults — are inclined to binge on massive quantities of junk food after not eating for a while, they can also end up indulging in unhealthy or excessive behavior when screens re-enter the picture.
As clinical psychologist and Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers author Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., told Real Simple, “Remember that forbidden fruit is the tastiest. If you have unreasonable expectations and rules, you will simply double their desire.”
And don’t overlook the fact that screen use can become a real addiction. In many cases, kids who are hooked on them really do feel like they need them. In other words, forcing them to go “cold turkey” may be painful — to all of you.
Step 2: Place responsibility where it belongs
Earlier, we mentioned the word “responsibility.” As it turns out, this is a big part of promoting smart screen use. As parents, one of the best things we can do for our children is to teach them to be responsible. This applies to homework and finances and relationships and work and just about every other aspect of adult life. Helicopter parents aside, most of us try to avoid doing everything for our kids, even though the temptation is sometimes strong. Why? Because deep down we know that if they never learn how to manage the day to day commitments of their lives, they’ll struggle when we’re not around to save them.
Step 3: Help them along
Of course, just because you give kids responsibility over their own screen time doesn’t mean they get a free pass. After all, you don’t teach kids to use money wisely by setting them loose with a credit card. Just as you work with kids to learn the many critical life skills which will help them lead happy, fulfilled, engaged lives, so should you work with them when it comes to screen time.
Establishing some guidelines for the where’s and when’s of screen time can be a useful tactic.
For starters, Palladino recommends avoiding morning screen time. Why? Because the act of engaging with a screen puts them into a “passive, receptive mode.”
Adds Palladino, “If you start the day that way, you’ll wind up going against a stronger current to turn the TV off and get going.” (While you may not have known why, you’ve probably experienced this for yourself at some point or another.) Not to mention that by the time afternoon rolls around, an inside screen time break may actually be desirable.
Additionally, disallowing screens in bedrooms, on long car rides, and at night aren’t arbitrary restrictions; Rather, each of these limitations serves a wellness-supporting purpose — one, however, of which your child may be unaware. Which brings us to our next point: The simplest way to position yourself as your child’s ally? Don’t just give them the rules. Give them the reasons for the rules. They may not immediately understand (or may pretend not to, anyway) and they may not agree with you, but a show of sense trump a show of strength any day.
An even better tactic? Enlist kids in the making of the rules, whenever possible. Ask their opinion about how much time they want to have. Perhaps best-selling Psychology of Winning writer Denis E. Waitley put it best when he said, “The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” Empowering them to take on roles in managing their own screen time accomplishes exactly this and will greatly reduce the friction and pushback.
Step 4: Accept that you’re responsible for your own screen time, too
And speaking of responsibility, it applies to you, too — times two. Take a second and consider how judiciously you’re managing your own time. Kids learn directly from watching you, and if they’re watching you sit on the sofa scrolling through Facebook or playing Candy Crush for hours on end, you’re probably sending the wrong message.
Step 5: Don’t forget about fun
While it’s easy to forget sometimes, life existed before screens, and no one — that we know of anyway — has ever died of boredom. While taking your kids screens away may be ill-advised in the grand scheme of things (because, really, who likes having things taken away?), offering them appealing alternatives is a direct route to the same end result. From game nights to lake trips, these types of activities bond families together, while simultaneously loosening the hold of screens.
Time in the great outdoors is particularly beneficial as an all-natural antidote to screen time. Says Palladino, “Scientists call the sights and sounds of nature ‘soft fascination.’ They stimulate the brain peacefully, so it no longer craves the hyperstimulation of electronics.”
Just keep in mind that mandating a family walk will likely lead to more stomping than strolling so giving kids some say in planning outdoor excursions is a must. The best part? From swimming and biking to hiking, camping, and insect collecting, there’s no shortage of outdoor fun to be had.
Connected kids who are used to having screens at the ready may need a bit of extra help when it comes to finding things to do — particularly when flying solo. Brainstorming potential activities as a family can not only keep boredom at bay, but can also help them discover new outlets.
If your kids are really pushing back on alone time, however, here’s a completely novel thought: Why not just let them be bored for once? They may whine for a bit, but they’ll eventually move on and find a way to occupy themselves. In doing so, they may also learn an invaluable lesson: That they’re more self-sufficient and capable than they realized.
Before you can even begin to move in the direction of a life in which your kids aren’t slaves to screen time and you aren’t either, one final act is essential: Accepting that technology isn’t the enemy. Then what is? Lack of communication. So close your eyes, take a deep breath and prepare to reframe your mindset from an anti-screen to a pro-balance stance. Because believe us when we say that you’ll all be a lot happier when you’re the ones calling the shots, not screens.
More Ways to Get Off Those Screens
Take a hike: The ills of screen time are widely known. From higher rates of obesity to brain damage, it’s not good. But there is an antidote to pretty much all of it, and a shockingly simple one at that. Exercise.
Moving the body has profound benefits, and yet we’re increasingly becoming a sitting society. The takeaway? Not only is getting your family up and moving together is the ultimate bonding experience, but it’s seriously good for you.
Combine that with the advantages of time outside and the list of reasons to exercise together grows. Nature is SO good for you, in fact, that research indicates that merely looking at a picture of greenery has cognitive benefits. So even just an after-dinner stroll around the neighborhood has positive payoffs.
A verdant variation on the theme? Start a family garden! It’s great exercise and gets everyone plenty of fresh air, too. You can even save money and encourage healthy eating by noshing on the fruits (and veggies) of your labor later.
Embrace your inner art lover: A video of a group of school kids in the presence of the world’s most famous pieces of art recently went viral — but for the wrong reasons. Rather than getting lost in the art, they were lost in their iPhones. While it was later revealed that they may have been working on an assignment at the time, the point was still well made: Devices are too often a distraction from engaging in the surrounding world. (And let’s be real — at least one of those kids had to have been playing Minecraft.)
Screens are inherently part of the lives of our children. Shouldn’t art be as well? A family trip to the art museum offers the perfect opportunity to collectively disconnect while facilitating art appreciation. Asking your kids about how what they’re seeing makes them feel also opens lines of communication while simultaneously encouraging critical thinking.
Get your game night on: When was the last time you circled your fam-squad around a good, old-fashioned Monopoly board? (Some of the pieces may have changed, but otherwise it’s still the same game you remember from your childhood.) From fostering a healthy spirit of competition while teaching kids to be good winners and losers, it’s also an opportunity to introduce money management skills.
Not a fan of a Monopoly? There’s a near-endless supply of games from which to choose. And really when was the last time you got to say, “You sunk my battleship!” Just do yourself a favor and save Cards Against Humanity for adult company.
Don’t have a board game handy? Make it a charades night instead.
The best thing about these screen-free family activities? They aren’t just alternatives to screen time, they’re something else, too: Fun. And the list doesn’t end there. From A (art classes) to Z (the zoo), there’s a whole world beyond your screens just waiting to be discovered. So next time before you reach for that remote for that umpteenth viewing of The Goonies, reach for this list instead.
Even More Ways to Cut Screen Time This Summer
- Lead by example. This is a really tough one, as it means you’ve got to give something up as well. If meal time means no smart phones, then you have to abide by that rule as well. If your children see you breaking the rules you expect them to follow, they won’t respect you or the rule in the future.
- Set specific no-tech times and spaces at home. Whether it’s dinner together several times a week, family game night or spending some time with grandparents, these times need to be strictly tech-free. If you need to, set up a “tech jail” in a plastic container that everyone has to deposit their devices in during these times. Don’t forget to turn off the television.
- Kick it to the curb. Sure, having one or two television sets in your home may be a bit of an adjustment, but getting televisions out of the bedroom can drastically improve sleep. Having to decide which television show to watch also helps your kids learn the fine art of negotiation and compromise.
- Get messy. If your kids pick up a messy hobby, such as painting, pottery, baking or science projects, they’ll be less likely to want to mess with their tablet or phone, especially if you make a rule that they need to clean it up if they get it dirty. This creates a self-driven restriction on tech usage during this time.
- Turn off notifications. Though it can be really tempting to multi-task, the American Psychological Association have found that these small distractions rob us of as much as 40% of our real productivity. When something important needs to happen, turn off your notifications to really get into a state of flow.
- Go on a device-free field trip. Take your kids to see a local museum, park or other event and leave the devices at home. Your children will stretch their wings and learn more about the world about them and other people’s view of it through these often free field trips in your local area.
- Remember blanket forts? Your kids will love them too. Turn off the tech, empty the linen closet and see who can create the best possible fort. For bonus points, you can create a couple forts in the backyard using older linens and then add a fun round of capture the flag or similar team games.