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9 tips for helping your child unplug from screens

Your child might happily sit in front of a computer all day, every day – but there can be health consequences to that.


By Nate Chomilo, MD
March 21, 2018

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Screens are everywhere we and our children look. They’re involved in how we keep in touch with friends and family in a big way. We get much of our news and entertainment through them. And now we even use them to order at some restaurants!

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 are actually beneficial to a young child’s cognitive development.

Exposure to excessive screen time is in fact associated with attention and learning problems, lower academic performance, obesity and negative behavior in children. And really, children should spend at least 60 minutes of unstructured playtime outdoors each day. That’s because outside time can reduce stress and anxiety. And kids get a better chance to build their strength, balance, language and social skills when they are outside, too.

Yet a refrain I often hear from 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 that balance so that your kids are spending their time engaged in a variety of ways that don’t all involve screens?

Here are 9 things that I’ve found work to limit screen time and keep your child (and you!) happy and healthy:

  1. Set the example.

    Kids are very perceptive. “Do as I say, not as I do” does not pass the sniff test with most. 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 his or her brain. Make a habit of taking a daily or weekly walk around your neighborhood. Or, visit a lake or state park and hike around it. Explore gardening and healthy eating by planting vegetables and fruits that are easy to maintain. You can do this in a yard or even with potted gardens. Then as you watch your garden grow, talk about all those fruits and veggies – and be sure to taste test them as they ripen. Eating at least five fruits and vegetables per day is the best way to be healthy and feel more energized.

  3. Read.

    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. There is evidence that comprehension and retention is better when paper books are used rather than when electronic readers (e.g. Kindles, iPads). Your local library is a wonderful resource for recommendations on age-appropriate books. And many libraries have weekly story times for younger children. If your children are older, consider doing a monthly family book club. You can alternate which member of the family gets to pick the book for each month.

  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 park and rec sign-up 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 prep for your journey that don’t involve screens. Use a traditional map to find and mark an interesting route. Choose to research your destination by reading travel books out loud as a family. And be sure to ask your kids for their opinion on what they would like to do. Once you get on the road, choose a book on tape to listen to. Or kick off a round of “I Spy” or the “Alphabet Game” – remember how fun that was for you growing up? These games aren’t fancy, but they are still a great way to build and strengthen your family bond.

  6. Have assigned chores.

    Getting kids to chip in with housework is great for both child and parents. Write down a list of chores and allow kids to cross them off once they are completed. There can also be incentive involved. For example, making the bed, mowing the lawn, etc. could each equal 15 minutes of screen time. Your child will learn about responsibility. And you will save 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 go by the wayside. 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 should not have tablets, cell phones or TVs in their bedrooms. And it is never too late to place those restrictions on older children and teenagers.

  8. Schedule screen time.

    Limiting screen time does not 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 exhausted themselves. Also try to make sure that the screen time your child does have comes in short intervals. I recommend aiming for 30 minutes and drawing the line at an hour, at most. Remember to have all electronics stashed away at least two hours before bedtime.

  9. Relax.

    Even if your family is always going with different activities, remember that it’s important to have some scheduled downtime, too. Boredom helps stimulate the creative processes in the brain, so do not be afraid of leaving periods of time on your calendar open and unbooked. Talk with your children to come up with a list of non-screen related activities they like to do. Then, when they are bored you can refer them to their list.

Screen time and time in the real world should be well-balanced. Be consistent, but not rigid in your rules. There might be days where a movie might run a little long or a new video game may make stopping difficult. If you have been limiting screen time, there can be a few occasional “treat” days thrown in. Remember these are recommendations – there is no magic number where bad or great things happen. The goal is to have healthy habits become a daily routine for your child and your family.

About Nate Chomilo, MD

Dr. Nate Chomilo is a general pediatrician (doctor for kids in the clinic) and a hospital internist (doctor for adults in the hospital). He is passionate about helping families raise healthy and successful children and being an advocate for children within our communities. Dr. Chomilo has a special interest in early childhood literacy (helping kids learn to love books) and health literacy in general. Outside of his position with Park Nicollet, he serves as the Medical Director for Reach Out and Read MN. This is a non-profit organization that promotes early childhood literacy in pediatric exam rooms. He has also been appointed to Governor Mark Dayton’s Early Learning Council. When he’s not working, Dr. Chomilo and his wife enjoy reading to their newborn son and are currently busy trying to sleep train him, and catch a few minutes of rest for themselves.

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