Screens are everywhere we look. We use them for keeping in touch with friends and family, shopping, playing games, and reading the latest in news and entertainment. Many kids also use them in schools. All of this may leave us wondering how much screen time is too much for our kids.
In today’s world, it’s important to introduce our kids to these fun and new technologies. But we need to make sure that they’re not becoming dependent on screens to manage behavior. Because even though apps and the internet promise to provide educational games and resources, there is little evidence that they actually help a young child’s cognitive development.
In fact, too much screen time is associated with attention and learning problems, lower academic performance, obesity and negative behavior in children, according to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). And really, children should spend at least 60 minutes of unstructured playtime outdoors each day. This can reduce stress and anxiety, as well as give kids a chance to build their strength, balance, language and social skills when they are outside.
Yet a common complaint among parents is “All my kids want to do is sit in front of their TV, iPad or cell phone all day. I can’t pull them away!” So what can you do? How do you strike a balance so that your kids are spending their time engaged in a variety of ways that don’t all involve screens?
Here are nine ways to limit screen time and keep your child (and you) happy and healthy:
1. Set the example
It may not always seem like it, but kids pay attention. “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t enough for most of them. Parents must also follow house screen rules. Is one of your rules that no screens are allowed during dinner or family time? That means Mom and Dad shouldn’t be pulling out their phone to check Facebook or Instagram, either. Research shows that the more parents are absorbed in their own devices, the more likely children are to act out for attention. In order to help your child be more aware of the offline world, you need to give them opportunities to explore their community. Plan outdoor activities that will teach kids new skills. Biking, swimming, sports or camping are all great options.
2. Spend quiet time outside
Electronic games and educational TV shows can exercise the brain, but they can also overstimulate it. By spending time with the sights and sounds of nature instead, your child can peacefully engage their brain. Make a habit of taking a daily or weekly walk around your neighborhood. Or, visit a lake or state park and go hiking.
Not all activities have to be done outdoors. Encourage your kids to read more by giving them a list of books to tackle over school breaks. Besides opening the door to different worlds, the benefits of reading usher in better speech skills, reading comprehension, logical thinking and more. When possible, try to have your child read out of a printed book or comic.
4. Play sports … and just play
Organized sports are a great way to get children involved in team building. Plus, they get kids moving. If children are looking for entry-level teams, check your city’s parks and recreation signup dates. Likewise, playing outside with friends gives children more chances to make new friends or build stronger bonds with old ones. This unstructured time with other kids also helps build social skills.
5. Plan and go on road trips
Whether you’re planning a weekend road trip or one that lasts all week long, there are a lot of activities you and your kids can do to prepare for your journey that don’t involve screens. Use a traditional map to find and mark an interesting route. Research your destination by reading travel books out loud as a family. And be sure to ask your kids for their opinions on what they would like to do. Once you get on the road, choose an audiobook to listen to.
6. Have assigned chores
Getting kids to chip in with housework is great for both children and parents. Write down a list of chores and allow kids to cross them off once they are completed. There can also be rewards involved. For example, making the bed and mowing the lawn could each equal a couple of dollars in allowance or a chance to choose what’s for dinner. Your child will learn about responsibility. And you’ll save yourself some time.
7. Keep screens out of the bedroom
Screens should be kept out of the bedroom throughout the year – even over the summer and on school breaks, when there’s temptation to let some rules loosen up. Getting regular, quality sleep is important to your child’s mental and physical health and development. And, research shows that the presence of a TV or small screen in the bedroom can cause shorter and less restful sleep. That’s why young children shouldn’t have tablets, cell phones or TVs in their bedrooms. And it’s never too late to place those rules on older children and teenagers.
8. Schedule screen time
Limiting screen time doesn’t mean banning electronics altogether. But know that being in front of a screen does switch your child’s brain to passive mode. That’s why it’s important to schedule screen time strategically. Save the morning hours for imaginative activities because that’s when minds are sharper. When it comes to allowing screen time, afternoon is best. This is when the sun is at its hottest and children have already tired themselves out. Also, try to make sure that the screen time your child does have comes in short intervals – make a goal of 30 minutes and draw the line at an hour, at most. Remember to have all electronics stashed away at least two hours before bedtime.
Even if your family is always doing different activities, remember that it’s important to have some scheduled downtime, too. Boredom helps stimulate the creative processes in the brain, so don’t be afraid to leave free periods of time on your calendar. Talk with your children to come up with a list of non-screen-related activities they like to do. Then when they’re bored, you can refer them to their list.