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9 tips for helping your child unplug from screens this summer

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

April 27, 2017

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Once the last school bell of the year finishes ringing, the temptation to keep kids occupied with unlimited access to TV and computer screens is strong. However, summer should be a time for them to be engaged in a variety of ways.

So how do you find a balance between these two urges, and keep both child and parent happy?

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children should spend at least 60 minutes of unstructured playtime outdoors each day. Outside time can reduce stress and anxiety. You’re actually at risk for something called Nature Deficit Disorder if you don’t get outdoors enough. And kids get a better chance to build their strength, balance, language and social skills when they are outside, too.

Apps and the internet promise to provide educational games and resources. But there is little evidence that these are actually beneficial to a young child’s cognitive development. In fact, exposure to excessive screen time is associated with attention and learning problems, lower academic performance, obesity and negative behavior in children. That’s according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“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!’” said Park Nicollet pediatrician Nate Chomilo, MD. “But apps don’t provide the vital human interaction early learners need, so I always tell these parents, ‘Don’t give up on trying to pull them away!’”

Here are Dr. Chomilo’s suggestions for how you can limit screen time so that your child (and you) can be kept happy and healthy:

1. Chores – Having kids 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.

2. 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.

3. 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. Summer is also a great time to explore topics, like gardening and healthy eating. Set aside an afternoon to plant 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.

4. Build friendships – 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. Keep screens out of the bedroom – With the arrival of summer comes the temptation to let some rules go by the wayside. One rule that should remain throughout the year is keeping screens out of the bedroom. 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. Quality sleep is important throughout the year, not just during the school year. Research shows that the presence of a TV or small screen in the bedroom can cause shorter and less restful sleep.

6. Read – Not all activities have to be done outdoors. Encourage children to read more by giving them a list of books that they might enjoy over the summer. 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.

7. Road trips – Be it a week-long or just a weekend trip, summer is the best time for road trips. It’s a lot easier to schedule plans when school is not in session. There are a lot of activities you can do to prep for a road trip 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.

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 you have many activities scheduled, remember that summer is meant to be a relaxing time. Boredom helps stimulate the creative processes in the brain so do not be afraid of having nothing scheduled. Talk to your children at the beginning of the summer and come up with a list of non-screen related activities they want to do this summer. Then, when they are bored you can refer them to their list.

Whatever your summer plans may be, 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. Our goal is to have healthy habits become a daily routine for your child and your family. And it’s also for you to have fun together this summer.

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