For Kids, Summertime Doesn’t Have to Mean More Screentime

Summertime is almost here, which means that kids will soon be out of school, perhaps with plenty of time on…

May 9, 2024

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by Larry Magid

Summertime is almost here, which means that kids will soon be out of school, perhaps with plenty of time on their hands. That’s great, but it also means that they’ll have more time to interact with their devices. For some kids, this can be problematic.

Although I don’t discount the potential damage from overuse of technology, I’m not a believer in applying the term “addiction.”  I agree with pediatrician and Boston Children’s Digital Wellness Lab director, Dr. Michael Rich, author of The Mediatrician’s Guide: A Joyful Approach to Raising Healthy, Smart, Kind Kids in a Screen-Saturated World who wrote, “The label of addiction isn’t helpful when it skews our response and fails to provide the young person with the means of righting a pattern of media use that has gone awry.  On ConnectSafely’s “Are We Doing Tech Right?” podcast, he said “The way you take care of addiction is abstinence. With the Internet, we can’t abstain. We need this. This is a necessary resource to life in the 21st century.”  A better term is “problematic media use behaviors” that, wrote Rich, “are immersive due to their interactivity—distracting and soothing children and adolescents with subclinical or undertreated emotional and behavioral issues.”

Of course, not all kids who spend too much time online or on their phones have serious emotional and behavioral issues.There are lots of good reasons to be online, and it’s not uncommon for people to spend a bit too much time doing good things, ranging from reading to exercise to spending time with friends. But if it’s becoming a problem, for any reason, it might be time for the adults in the child or teen’s life to provide them with some guidance.

It’s also important to remember that not all screentime is the same. Some uses, like schoolwork, interacting with teammates or looking up health information, might be necessary. But other activities might be problematic.

Start with a conversation

How you respond depends on many factors, including how much time they’re spending online, whether it’s interfering with school, chores, relationships or other activities and the personality of the child or teen. As Rich pointed out, abstinence is rarely the appropriate remedy, so don’t rip the phone from their hands. Talk with them about their use. It doesn’t have to be a battle. In fact, your teen or child might very well agree with you and welcome help putting down their phone. It’s not unheard of for teens to acknowledge that they are spending too much time with their tech

The talk you have with your teen should be a conversation, not a lecture. Start by asking them about how they’re using technology and what they like and don’t like about it. In a non-threatening and supportive way, ask them if they sometimes wish they were spending less time with their devices or doing other things instead. They might push back. If so, that’s OK. You can still have a conversation about how they are spending their time and suggest activities that don’t involve screens, including things that kids might very much look forward to.

The list of non-screen activities is endless, including reading, playing games, walking and hiking, swimming and other sports or things like going out to eat, family vacations or just hanging out with friends.

Setting limits

Sometimes you have to set clear limits, especially if your child or teen has impulse control issues or has gotten into bad habits that they’re having trouble letting go of. Ideally, your teen should be able to self-enforce whatever limits you agree on or impose, but sometimes they need a bit of help. That could include an in-person reminder from a family member or friend or the use of a technology tool to remind them to take a break.  Both iOS and Android have time management tools that your child can turn on to remind them to take a break or prevent them from using specific apps during certain times or after a specified amount of time. There are also tools that parents can use to enforce these breaks, although I recommend you only use those if they are necessary. It’s best if the young person buys into the notion of getting reminders rather than having them forced on them.

Sometimes it’s necessary to talk with them about the negative impact of too much screen time or the negative consequences of not getting enough exercise, sleep or time spent on other activities. For some kids offering a reward, such as a fun activity or outing, is an incentive to step away from their devices.

Adult behavior matters

Don’t overlook your own media use. If kids see you on your phone or computer or even watching TV, they’re getting a message that’s stronger than anything you can say to them. I’m not suggesting you abstain from all media use but let them see that you are conscious about not overusing your device or using it during times when you should be interacting with others.

If your kids will be spending a lot of time around other adults, perhaps grandparents, care providers or the parents of their friends, it might be a good idea to set some expectations as to how they should behave around your kids and what rules you want them to enforce.

Some families have specific times or entire days when all devices are turned off. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain has long promoted what she calls “Technology Shabbats” also known as “digital sabbaths.” Shlain, who is Jewish, wrote “Every Friday night, we all unplug from all of our technologies and don’t turn them on again until Saturday evening. Unplugging for a day makes time slow down and makes me feel more present with my family. I not only appreciate this quality time with them, but it has also made me appreciate technology in a whole new way. By Saturday night we can’t wait to plug back in.”  Of course, it doesn’t have to be on the Jewish sabbath. It can be all day Sunday or any other day and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an entire day or a weekly event. It could be for a single evening or a day when the family is on vacation.

This post first appeared in the Mercury News

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