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7 ways to help your kid unplug this summer

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

If he could, my 7-year-old son would curl up in an armchair for hours, exploring pixelated worlds on his video game system. His 5-year-old brother, meanwhile, prefers television. He'll awake at dawn and ask for his favorite cartoons before he’s even brushed his teeth. It doesn’t help that summer is here. If I'm not careful, more free time will translate into more screen time for my little guys.

Like many parents, I worry about how much time they spend staring at a screen. Studies show that screen-loving children and teens are at higher risk for obesity, may read less, have lower grades and even suffer poorer quality sleep. “Once sleep is affected, that’s going to create a whole host of concerns ― physically, emotionally and mentally,” says Christopher James, M.D., a child psychiatrist with Aetna's Behavioral Health team.

While some screen use may actually be beneficial for kids (more on that later), how much is too much? Dr. James suggests no more than two hours of screen time a day for children six and older; less than one hour for kids five and under; and none for babies 18 months and younger.

Knowing what limits to set for your family is one thing. Enforcing them is another. The key, says child development specialist Betsy Brown Braun, is not letting your kids wear you down. “It is in the kid's playbook to complain, to push back, to whine,” says Brown Braun, the author of You're Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your Four- to Twelve-Year-Old Child. “Your job as a parent is to not let that force you off your course.”

How can you stay firm in your efforts to separate your kids from their screens? These tips can help:

1. Calmly explain why limiting screen time is important

Reasoning with your child can be a challenge, especially when you’re prying her away from a beloved device. It helps to offer explanations beyond “because I said so.” Brown Braun suggests trying something more concrete like, “You need to help your body to grow by getting some exercise outside,” or “It’s time to use another part of your brain.” You can also emphasize the importance of moderation, comparing screen use to, say, eating candy. Just because children love candy, it doesn't mean they can eat it all the time. To best emphasize your message (and not the emotions behind it), Brown Braun suggests speaking in “an even, emotionless tone of voice.”

2. Work with your child to establish a plan. 

It’s easier to be consistent about limiting your child’s summer screen use when you have clear rules in place. But don’t decide them in a vacuum. “The more you plan with your child, the more he will buy into it,” Brown Braun explains. And if more than one parent is in the picture, you should both be on the same page about screen rules.

Your summer screen plan can be more than just agreeing to certain time limits. You could, for instance, require that your child complete his usual chores before he can play his video games. You could also give him the opportunity to earn more screen time by completing major tasks ― weeding the garden, for example ― that go above and beyond his usual chores.

3. Have alternatives ready. 

Coming up with device-free activities at the spur of the moment can be hard, so try preparing ahead of time. If your child likes arts and crafts, have various supplies like watercolor paints or glue on hand. The same goes for sports: Set up a basketball hoop, soccer net or whatever else you know will get your child moving. With younger kids, cycle through toys you already have. “If you put away a few toys for ‘a rainy day,’ then you can bring them out at these very times,” she says.

Want to get your child out of the house? Check your local library, community center and various religious organizations ― many offer families low-cost or free summer activities.

4. Designate screen-free zones. 

Set rules regarding where and when your child can use devices. Many experts, including Brown Braun, recommend banning them at meal times, for instance, because screen use can disrupt family bonding. The bedroom is also a popular device-free spot, since staring at a bright screen can prevent kids from getting a good night’s rest. (To help them get a good night’s sleep, Dr. James suggests powering down at least an hour before bedtime.)

When your child is allowed to use screens, encourage her to do it where you’ll be around to monitor her activities ― in the kitchen while you’re washing the dishes, for example. This helps ensure she’s not visiting inappropriate websites or logging into violent games.

5. Model good device behavior. 

Want your child to spend less time on her device? Cut down on your own screen time in her presence. Otherwise, says Brown Braun, “it’s like saying, ‘Smoking is bad for you’ and holding a cigarette.” Some families engage in screen-free weekends; others require everyone to put their smartphones in a basket near the front door when they come home. “Yes, there may be protest,” she adds, “but that should be your family rule, just like you have other family rules.”

6. Be firm and dole out logical consequences when necessary.  

There’s a good chance your child will try to convince you to make exceptions to your screen time rules. Don’t budge. The minute you soften your stance, your child will remember that instance and be more emboldened to try to convince you to bend the rules again.

And don’t be afraid to penalize rule-breaking by limiting screen time more. “You can say, ‘Every time you ask for more screen time, we're going to take five minutes off your time the next day,’” says Brown Braun. “What we're trying to do is have logical consequences that make the child realize that this is happening because of him, not because of you.”


"Want your child to spend less time on her device? Cut down on your own screen time in her presence."

7. Encourage “good” screen time.

Not all screen time is bad. In fact, various educational programs and games can even be beneficial for your kid, when used in moderation. Stick with age-appropriate games and activities; your child’s pediatrician, school or teachers can recommend specific sites, like PBS, that offer educational games, activities and videos. Or check online resources, like Common Sense Media, to learn about which shows and games are a good fit for your child’s age group.

Though you can accomplish a lot on your own, in some cases, it may be worth turning to behavioral health professionals for more help. “I would tell parents that they should seek help for their children when screens have taken the place of real-world interactions, if there is an inability to cut down their use, or if there seems to be a blurring between the real world and the child’s online world,” Dr. James says. Aetna members can search for child psychologists and other specialists in their area using Aetna’s DocFind tool.

With the right intervention and planning, your screen-loving child can enjoy a healthy, well-rounded summer. That’s what I’m trying to do with my boys, who know that they can indulge in their respective screens after dinner for only an hour or less. Sometimes they gripe about the limits, but those complaints are quickly forgotten when they immerse themselves in a board game or kick around a soccer ball. They’re having fun the old-fashioned way this summer and, I hope, learning to relish life without pixels.


About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!

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