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Helping children and teens step away from screens is not about giving up technology. Technology is a wonder! We live in a high tech world and technology has facilitated so many important advances for humanity. I have a growing concern, however, that as a society we may have become overly dependent on our screens since the pandemic. I am not alone in this concern and I am certainly not the first to write about it. This very new research study found that time in front of screens doubled for children and teens during the pandemic going from an average of 3.8 hours per day pre-pandemic to an average of 7.7 hours in front of screens during the pandemic.

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Reducing screen time and increasing time in nature and in-person connections is important for finding balance.

Dr. Meghan Owenz is a psychologist and author who developed a site called Screen-free Parenting and a research-based screen-free system for prioritizing child’s play called S.P.O.I.L. Her book called Spoiled Right: Delaying Screens and Giving Children What They Really Need  provides undeniable evidence supporting the need for more time playing outdoors and interacting with caregivers. It’s very clear that children and teens need balance. Children need face-to-face interaction and connection, unstructured play and big-body-movement. I’ve been considering ways for helping children and teens step away from screens in order to have more quality face-to-face time with people, nature and the wide world beyond screens.

There are so many benefits of screen-use but we need to be mindful of how we and how children and teens are using technology and how much time is spent in front of screens in lieu of face-to-face interactions, non-structured play, and time in nature.

Jessica Grose writes in her New York Times article addressing the uptick of adolescent anxiety, “The internet, and our reliance on it as a tool, isn’t going away. We need to help our kids live with it in a way that protects their mental health, rather than freaking out about how it’s destroying them.”  I agree that it is not helpful or necessary to jump to extreme conclusions and the aim should not be to eliminate screen time. Internet access is an important and supportive tool. And there are high quality websites, apps and other technology-supported activities that actually promote healthy lifestyles.  The call and the focus of this article is to find balance…and it’s important to bring in strategies for more controlled screen time use in order to ensure healthy amounts of in-person interaction, big body movement and time playing outdoors.

During the lock-downs of the COVID19 pandemic we all relied on our screens to get our news, to connect with family, to work and learn and socialize. As a child and family therapist I jumped in full steam-ahead to help other therapists around the world quickly adapt to working with child and family clients via tele-health therapy. It was necessary and it was important to maintain those therapist-client connections. I supported this effort by contributing two foundational chapters in the recently published book called Play Therapy & Telemental Health. Many therapists have gone on to learn and practice digital play therapy and have thrived, embracing cutting edge ways of working with children and families through online sessions. Other therapists have clamored to get back to in-person therapy with clients feeling strongly that children need face-to-face interaction in therapy.

A recent study determining discrepancies between parent and adolescent reports as to how much time adolescents were spending on screens resulted in researchers recommending parents initiate a Family Media Use Plan. Parents are busy and the pandemic has left a trail of stressors and a heavy reliance on technology to complete work and school projects. These are realities we have to sensitively navigate because indeed most parents have absolutely done the best they can with very difficult, unprecedented challenges during the pandemic. No matter how busy parents are, I do recommend that parents  develop a family plan for use of technology and install filtering software or parental controls on children’s devices to protect children from being exposed to harmful and age-inappropriate content. Dr. Mary Affee and I wrote a children’s book called Sammy Saw Something on the Screen about this very topic to support children and parents around safe and supervised internet. and technology use.

Children and teens today were born into a digital age and it’s important for adults who did not grow up with cell phones, tablets and computers to join with children and teens in having a better understanding of their digital world. The requirements of the pandemic to rely on screens for work, school, meetings, family connections and events such as weddings and funerals pushed many therapists, parents and teachers to get on board with the digital way of connecting, working and learning. I believe it has helped us to better understand the digital world children and teens live in. I worry that we are  now out of balance as a society, however. I fear the pendulum has swung too far to the side of too much technology and so I am focusing in this article on ways for helping children and teens step away from screens.

Too much time in front of screens is associated with attention and learning problems along with health and social concerns according to the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). That association may or not be causation but there is definitely a common-sense consideration that if a child is sedentary in front of a screen all day that child is not getting enough movement, fresh air, sunshine, and in-person interaction. The US Department of Health and Human Services, recommends children and adolescents ages 6 – 17  have 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of physical activity every day! Recent research has established that time outdoors in nature helps children have reduced levels of anxiety and stress and many other health and social benefits. The reality is mosts children are only getting an average of 10 minutes each day with unstructured play time and even less than that outdoors in nature.

The Canadian Pediatric Society emphasizes that ensuring quality screen-time is more important than stagnant time limits citing that there are nuances to the risks and benefits of screen time for children. I agree that there are absolutely benefits to quality screen time and technology can be a way children and their caring adults can connect more readily. I also have observed with my own clients, consultees, supervisees, colleagues, friends and family that many people – especially children and teens – are spending more time on screens than is likely healthy for our brains and bodies.

In this cross-sectional national survey published in October 2021 that gave consideration to pandemic stressors as well as demographic variables, findings with 1000 school-aged children in the US showed that children who participated in more physical activity and less screen time had more positive mental health outcomes as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. It is strong enough evidence to point to ensuring children and teens are getting a healthy balance.

Finding balance between screen time and in-person connection and time in nature is the key!

The question we face at this time is about how we can find BALANCE and strategies for helping children and teens step away from screens enough of the day to get the unstructured play and personal face-to-face human interaction that they need for healthy development. 

7 Ways for helping children & teens step away from screens:

1. Be the change you want to see.

As the adults, we have to examine our own over-use and over-dependency on technology. We must take a look at how much time we are on screens and how much time we are getting out into nature and interacting face-to-face with friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. If we want to effectively help children & teens step away from screens, we have to practice stepping away from screens ourselves. Be prepared to model the changes you are asking of your children. Start by logging your own screen-time over the course of a week without changing anything. Where can you have better balance? How can you increase your in-person connections and time in nature while reducing your screen time?

2. Reduce screen time with screen-free gathering around the table.

Observe family dinners as many evenings as possible and have everyone put their phones away from the dining room. Cherish your face-to face time with family members. Play the game “one-up-one-down” where each person shares something positive and something negative that happened for them during the day. Bonus if you can gather in the kitchen and prepare the meal together screen-free.

3. Host screen-free peer parties.

Encourage your child to host a party where everyone turns in their phones and other screens at the door. You can play music, have board games, play charades or Pictionary. You can have a nacho bar, an ice cream sundae buffet or just order pizzas. Encourage children and teens to hang out with friends without video games, phones or access to social media. Dr. Dan Siegel talks about how social media is rewiring our brains in this video (and it is not for the better). Helping children and teens step away from screens can be a mission for your local community by making these kinds of parties a norm.

4. Plan nature excursions on the regular.

Plan and announce dates and time blocks every week where you and your children will go somewhere out in nature. Every Saturday morning go for a hike or every Sunday do a family picnic in the park. Every Thursday evening in the summer pitch a tent in the back yard, build a camp fire, catch fireflies and roast dinner and dessert over the flames. Leave the phones and tablets at home. Use walky-talkies to stay in touch if out on an excursion to stay in touch.

5. Establish screen time as a way for helping children and teens step away from screens.

When I was a teen in the dark ages we had telephones that were hard-wired to the wall and talking on the phone with friends was how we connected between school days. My parents had a strict “phone time” established where I had 30 minutes each night between 8:00 and 8:30 to talk on the phone and that was it. Otherwise I was expected to spend time with the family, do homework, read a book or play a board game with my sister. Today we are on our screens so much of the time we’ll be lucky to have 30 minutes spent with one another at home without screens. The solution is to establish set time for working or playing on screens and when time is up, screens are put away. As a family you might have a discussion about what time would be best and how much time is reasonable.

6. Have screen-free zones in your home.

Designate a couple of rooms in the house for screen use. Having just one or two rooms where technology is accessed encourages gathering physically in the same space while doing your respective technology based work or fun but it also preserves certain rooms and areas in your home as screen-free for good reason. Screens in the bedroom interfere with quality sleep. Use an old fashioned alarm clock instead of the phone. Plug all the devices into chargers in one space each night one hour before bed. Keep screens out of the dining room and kitchen to preserve those spaces for face-to-face human connection and interaction. Helping children and teens step away from screens can be a much easier undertaking if you employ these kinds of boundaries in the home.

7. Befriend boredom

The next time your child bemoans being bored, celebrate aloud and tell your kid, “That’s fantastic!  Boredom stimulates your brain to get creative!” Boredom is a good thing because it is merely a doorway to unwinding from the over-stimulation of too much screen-time and the entry into creative action. It’s important to have down-time. It’s important to have completely unstructured time to explore, to be, to rest. We do not need to be doing and going every minute of every day. It’s healthy to have nothing to do. Boredom is a temporary state and a sign that we are about to enter a new experience beyond screens.

What about Screen Addiction? Is it real?

Internet addiction and screen-dependency for children and teens is a major concern for many parents and other caring adults. As with addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, food or sex, the internet provides children and adolescents a means to temporarily suspend painful emotions and challenging circumstances in their lives. Some children are staying online instead of getting the sleep their brains and bodies need for healthy development. Often adolescents and school-age children are spending more and more time in a social matrix online in lieu of real life, in-person social and familial connections. “Conversations” are had via text messaging so much that children and teens are missing out on healthy communication and connection experiences that can only be gained by having real-time, in-person conversations. Children who do not have loving and nurturing relationships with family or friends are at very high risk for developing dependency on screens and internet activity that might lead to dangerous exposure to age-inappropriate content and connections with predators online.

According to a Pew Research Center article published in 2018, 95% of adolescents have access to a smart cell phone and 45% report “being online constantly.” This data was pre-pandemic. Imagine what we will find in current studies being conducted since the pandemic when we know screen time doubled for children and teens (and adults as well).

But where is the line between too much technology and actual internet addiction?

Dr. Kimberly Young was the Director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery and a pioneer researcher on the topic of internet addiction. She died in 2019, sadly but left her great work behind including the following potential warning signs for children who. may have pathological Internet use. You can see her 2015 TedTalk here. 

Remember, these warning signs are not confirmation that your child has an addiction rather a pointer to use strategies provided in this article and if you are still concerned have a look at this Recovery Cafe article that may help you take next steps to support your child.

Dr. Young’s signs seen in children who may have problematic internet use:

  • Losing track of time while online
  • Sacrificing needed hours of sleep to spend time on the internet
  • Becoming agitated or angry if interrupted while online
  • Checking online messages frequently and compulsively
  • Becoming irritable if denied access to the internet
  • Spending time online instead of doing homework or home-chores
  • Preferring to spend time online instead of spending time with friends or family
  • Disregards time limits that have been set for online time established by caregivers
  • Lying about the amount of time online
  • Sneaking to have extra online
  • Forming relationships with people they’ve never met or spoken to except for through online connections
  • Seeming preoccupied with getting back to their device when asked to take a break and come to dinner or participate in off-line actiivty
  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable before he or she had online access
  • Becoming irritable, moody or depressed when not online