Tips for managing summer, screens, kids and keeping your sanity
6 great tips for creating a healthy and realistic plan for screen time this summer
By Leah Persky • Family Life Education Program Manager
On a recent family trip to Colorado, my two children ages 5 and 7 were allowed more time on their screens than normal. We logged hours driving, at the airport and on planes. We were armed with some fun and educational apps, games and downloaded pre-approved movies and TV shows. The kids were so excited to use their own devices and for an hour or more at a time – something that we do not usually allow.
While our family does not have a strict media plan, we usually only allow TV watching on big screens for less than one hour each day. Of course we allow some flexibility here and there as circumstances dictate. Being on vacation and off our normal routine, the kids seemed much more irritable than normal and hyper-focused on their devices during any down time we had. We had a wonderful time and spent lots of quality time hiking, swimming and seeing old friends, but the screens seemed ever-present and always on their minds. My son even started getting up earlier than everyone so he could find and play some games on his device before we got up. I guess I needed to find better hiding spots! Taking away the screen also became increasingly difficult as time progressed. One night, trying to get them to come to and stay at the dinner table seemed like a monumental task. This made me think that we needed a reset.
I know what we were experiencing was not at all unique. Continually changing and sometimes conflicting research about the impact of screen time on children, debates between parents about the best amount and type of screen time, and parent screen-shaming are enough to lead a parent to confusion and frustration. But seriously, what is a parent to do with all of this information, debate, discussion and conflicting information? Summer is only about halfway through!
All of these debates, the power of a screen to entertain a child and the fact that sometimes parents just have to make dinner, do the dishes, send an email or just have a few quiet sips of coffee (alone), explain the summer screen-time slide. With more unstructured time, time spent travelling, or off normal schedules, it is easy to see why so many children spend more time on screens in the summer. Many families also consciously relax screen-time rules in the summer.
There is a growing body of evidence that screens and social media can have positive impacts on growth and development of children over the age of 2 (when used in moderation), or at least not do nearly as much harm as often stated. There are so many educational apps and screen-based opportunities available with great learning potential for school-aged children. According to a recent survey, more than 90 percent of K-12 schools nationally reported using the Apple iPad to enhance learning. The educational potential of screens and technology cannot be denied, but how many of our kids are on these educational apps most of the time in the summer?
This brings me to the big questions: how can each family create a healthy and realistic plan for screen time this summer? How can parents avoid the massive battles that tend to develop over screen time? Here are some tips for finding a healthy balance for summer screen time:
1. If your child has a real interest in one game or program or computers in general, channel this interest and energy by enrolling in a camp or class on this topic at a local community center, school, or university. Summer may be half over, but there are still many opportunities for classes and week-long camps.
2. As much as possible, be part of your child’s screen experience – don’t just fall into the role of timekeeper and monitor. This is something that is really challenging to do. I traditionally was the timekeeper and it got so tiring and felt very isolating for me. I got sick of yelling for the kids to get off their screens with no response. Once I shifted my mindset and thought less about what I could get done while the kids were playing a game and more about how I could be part of their experience and help build their skills to be a responsible user of technology, this helped shift my role.
3. Another way to go about this is to find a shared interest. For example, my daughter and I enjoy watching cooking shows together and then experimenting in the kitchen. Maybe you and your child share a love of a sport, which you can further explore online. Audio books are free to check out from the library and are a great way to share a story together. If your child wants to set up a social media account, be part of that process in a way that makes sense. Older school-aged kids may really miss their school friends during the summer and often want to have other ways to connect. This can be a really positive thing, but you should take part in the process.
4. Make a social media and technology plan that works for your family, and revisit and update it every month or so. For guidelines on how to create a sensible plan for you, visit Common Sense Media. A big part of making a workable social media plan is looking at your own media use habits. Are you constantly checking in on emails and social media and rarely without your phone? Think about how your own habits with screens influence you and impact the desires and behaviors of your family. Make the changes in yourself first and see the ripple effect it has.
5. Set firm rules about things you and your family actually care about, not just things you may feel pressure to do based on what others are doing. For some, that is no eating while on a screen; for others, that is no screens in the bedroom, or having one or two days a week that are screen-free. Stick to the few things that are most important to you and your family. When you talk to your children about these rules, explain the why behind them. It is also an opportunity to discuss how different families have different rules and goals – we can all learn from and respect these differences.
6. Play around with the new apps, games and technology. I know that many parents (myself included) really don’t enjoy doing this, but it is so important to have at least a basic understanding of how your kids are spending time online and what the programs they are on are capable of. This is a way to set your mind at ease and also know enough to set specific limits and privacy controls. This is especially crucial for social media sites.
So whether your family members are playing Fortnite, Candy Crush, shopping the latest sale, watching a favorite show, reading a book, or doing one of the other almost limitless possibilities on a screen, use it as a time to connect, learn and try something new. Who knows – you might even have a little bit of fun while you are at it. As long as screen time does not displace other healthy and necessary activities, you and your family are on the right track this summer. Empowering each family member to be a responsible user of technology and pursue their interests makes each person happier and can bring your family closer as a whole.
Be on the lookout for information about our upcoming Family Life Education parenting series. We will be exploring social media, technology, and other parenting topics.