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Caring For Our Kids

Managing summer screen time

Photo: jim bauer / flickr

Summer is a time for relaxed days, fewer scheduled activities, and a break from the hectic pace of the school year. But with all that downtime comes a major challenge for parents — managing our children’s screen time. If your children are like mine, one minute of downtime or free time and their first instinct is to reach for a device. There are no set rules for this in terms of what is “right.” It is absolutely something each family needs to come to their own agreement on. This may be the easy part, but then finding ways to stick to that agreement may be more challenging. As with most parenting experiences, setting limits and outlining consequences is imperative to avoid the constant negotiations and whining. Here are some tips to help your family navigate this tricky territory:

Set limits: Children need limits even during the summer, so work together as a family to come up with the guidelines together. Having your children engaged in the process gives them some power and makes it more likely they will stick to the plan. Ask them how much time they think should be allowed and negotiate from there. In our house, we made a list of the things our children need to do before screen time is allowed. I use screen time as a “dangling carrot” — they need to have read, had some physical exercise, cleaned their rooms, and helped with a chore around the house before any screen time is allowed. Write down your family’s guidelines and post them in an area where they can be easily accessed, such as the kitchen. Depending on the age of your children, you may even want to have them sign it, almost like a contract.

After setting limits, the next key step is enforcing those limits. After everyone has agreed on the guidelines, take time to discuss the consequences if the guidelines are not followed. This may involve losing screen time for a day or an extended time. Another helpful tool in enforcement is the timer. In our house, our children are not going to turn off their devices on their own, so I set a timer and let the timer be the bad guy. This helps alleviate a lot of the negotiating for “just one more minute” or arguing about time.

Be an example: This whole exercise will go a lot smoother if everyone in the house adheres to the agreement — including us parents. Whatever guidelines your family comes up with, you need to follow them also. If we are expecting our children not to bring devices to the dinner table or to look up from a screen if someone is talking to them, we need to do the same.

Our children are always watching and learning from us. So another way to set an example is to model for them how to enjoy downtime without a screen. Let them see you reading a book or trying to solve a crossword or Sudoku puzzle from the newspaper. Or grab a deck of cards or a board game and ask them to play. Last, model for them the balance between getting outside for physical activity with sitting in front of a screen.

Engage with them: As parents, we would be naïve to think we could keep our kids away from a screen all summer. So with limits, instead of looking at screen time as a negative, use it as an opportunity for family bonding and a great way to engage with your children. Find out what they are doing online or learn to play the games they like. I didn’t grow up playing many video games, but my husband did, and it is fun to watch him and our children try to teach me the latest game that is consuming them. There is nothing wrong with a little friendly family competition over Crossy Road or Bubble Mania.

My son and daughter are obsessed with Minecraft. I have read blogs and even books dedicated to this, trying to understand what it is, how it works, and what makes it so appealing. I don’t have the answers to all those questions, but I do know that my best resource for figuring it out has turned out to be playing alongside my kids and asking questions. Another added benefit is you would be amazed at how many life lessons you can weave into a session of Minecraft. My children are still relatively young, so it is somewhat easy, but for me it is imperative that I know what they are doing online and understand the games they are playing. The technology is changing so quickly, and in most cases our kids know more about social media or online gaming than we do, and as parents, I feel it is crucial we stay ahead of the game.

There is nothing wrong with screen time in moderation, but research shows too much can have a negative impact on your child’s brain and well-being. So to make sure everyone in your family has a fun and relaxing summer, do your best to maintain a balance, set boundaries, and stick to them.

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Liz Farrell is the mother of three young children. She was formerly a television producer in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. E-mail: [email protected]

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