It's the question every parent is asking as summer wears on: are you giving your kids too much screen time? It's a fine line—when the days are long and activities get old, it's easiest to hand your kids a tablet or plop them in front of the TV for hours. And sometimes that's just fine (let's be honest, a little screen-given silence is pretty great), but every parent also knows that whiny moment when things tip and the kids have had too much.
More importantly, there's the underlying concern: several recent studies show that too much screen time hurts children's brain development. This is an incredibly big deal. It would be like giving them a steady stream of caffeinated soda instead of water; in the long term, both harm our kids’ development.
Let’s be clear—we’re not talking about family movies or a couple of hours of tablet-bought silence. We’re talking about the whine-until-they-get-it, coma-inducing, deeply addictive screen time that kids always want and that’s never good for them.
So what can you do?
1) Assess if your kids are having too much screen-time:
Answer the following questions about your kids’ behavior toward their screens this summer.
- Do they talk about their tablet/TV show/video game all the time?
- Are they always thinking about it?
- Can they function without it?
- Do they need a screen to behave well when you’re out in public?
- Do they know how to unplug with other activities?
If the answers to the questions above make you think you’re raising a little screen-addict, here are some ideas to help you keep your kids active and engaged so they don’t stunt their development—and you don’t lose your mind.
2) If they like screens at restaurants or on-the-go, try packing up small toys instead.
We like building blocks like Legos or Tegu because they’re easy to pack and take with you. You can also take along small action figures or a race car or two. The key element here is surprise: vary it up and give your kids something small to play with when they’re at a restaurant or table where they can get absorbed in their own internal world.
Help them with some direction: “You get five minutes to use these blocks to make a new kind of dinosaur. I’m going to time you and when the time is up, you need to tell me the name of your dinosaur, what it eats, and how it moves! OK, ready?” You can change the prompt (build a house, create a monster, make a new kind of airplane)—giving them direction, a time limit, and then leaving them to create builds up the kind of critical thinking skills they need and allows you to have a few minutes of uninterrupted time to visit or do what you need while you’re out.
3) If they like Minecraft or other world-building games, bring along everything they need to make their own worlds on paper.
Pack up markers or colored pencils and a notepad for a day out. Like with the small toys, don’t just say, “Draw something.” Give them instructions: “Find a picture that you like and copy it. Don’t tell me—let me guess and see if I can tell what you’re looking at.” If they’re older, you can give them more specific instructions: “See if you can draw your hand and copy the shadow exactly.” Get creative: “Design a new monster that lives in a cave on the edge of the world. Who are his friends? What does he eat? What’s his favorite thing to do?” Older kids might want to write a story—give them a title and a prompt: “Write one page about your monster and the day he discovered that he loved ice cream.” Make it creative and they’ll immediately get excited.
4) If they like spy games, let them be the spy at home or while you’re out.
This is one of the most fun things to do even as an adult. Treat your kids like you’re the spy master and they have to be in on your secret plan (every kid loves a secret no matter how old they are). If they’re too young to write, have them come whisper to you; if they can write even a few things, have them take notes. Then ask them, in a very serious way—looking around you to make sure no one is listening—to spy for you. Give them questions they need to answer:
- “What is Mommy planning for dinner? Don’t tell her I’m asking! Just see what she says.”
- “How many people are sitting at that table in the restaurant by the window? Don’t let them see you? Count and then get back to me.”
- “What color shoes are the kids on the swingset wearing? Check it out and let me know.”
You can make this as involved as you want it to be: write down questions they need to answer or have them work with friends in a group. Spy games can get very involved—use the recycling bin to make periscopes or spy watches. A little creativity can keep this going for hours.
5) For older kids, get them involved in addressing your screen time concerns.
It helps to tell older kids why you’re doing what you’re doing: “I’m not comfortable with how much time you spend on social media because of what it does to your brain. Here, let’s read this article. Do you feel like you get twitchy if you're on social media for too long? Let’s compromise: read a book for an hour and then you can have 15 minutes online and then let’s talk about how you feel when you’re done.” Teaching kids how to notice what screens do to their brains can have long-term benefits for them as they navigate a world that really, really wants them to be addicted. Especially for older kids, learning how to manage their screen time is extremely important: too much social media use has been linked to anxiety and depression in teens.
Know what’s happening online, give them limits like plugging their phones in at night in your room, don’t give them access to Snapchat or Instagram until you feel they’re old enough—these rules will differ from family to family and even kid to kid, but being intentional with your older kids about screens can pay off in the long run in very critical ways.
If you think your kids are addicted, start today. Start small—thirty minutes of creative time to earn some screen time, for example. Work your way out of the screen-time addiction with a goal toward having kids who can play independently or read for hours without thinking about screens. Some kids do this more naturally than others, but it’s worth trying different things until you see what connects with your kids.
Keeping kids occupied in the weeks before school starts without being addicted to screens is tough but worth it: what are some things that work for you? Leave us a comment below!