For much of the pandemic, screens have provided a lifeline for children, helping them socialize and learn, so it’s understandable that both kids and parents may have grown more attached than ever to their digital devices and connectivity. Now that some parts of the world are beginning to open up, families may need support as they navigate the transition back to “real life.”
“Asking kids to put their screens away cold turkey, even for a highly-anticipated week of summer camp, is a tall order. It can be even harder for parents to give up the ability to reach our kids at any given moment or to hear an ongoing report of our kids’ days. Depending on the age, it is beneficial for children to have (safe) space to make their own decisions, solve their own dilemmas and foster new relationships. Reducing screens this summer can help our children and teens transition to face-to-face interactions and real-world experiential fun and learning,” according to Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, DO, president and founder of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.
Summer camps, which may have rules limiting screen use and/or require children to be away from home for perhaps the first time in over a year, present both a challenge and an opportunity for young people who might not feel ready to cut back on their digital media use. With that in mind, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has invited distinguished researchers, clinicians, educators and parenting experts to share their tips on the best ways for children (and their parents) to deal with the sudden drop in screen time.
1. Practice makes perfect
Sometimes, the fear of the unknown is worse than the experience itself, so practicing what it’s like to go without screens before kids leave for summer camp can help ensure a smooth transition.
“Try out a screen-free afternoon and encourage fun, screen-free activities at home,” says Sarah E. Domoff, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychology, Central Michigan University. “Parents and other caregivers may also find it tough to go without instant contact with their children, so do a trial run of no phone contact for a day or so.”
Domoff recommends writing postcards or drafting up letters or emails to send at a later time as a way for families to still feel connected, and suggests downloading any appropriate music or podcasts kids might want to listen to in advance of extended periods without Wi-Fi.
2. Out-busy your screens
After a year of constant connection, it’s natural for kids to feel like they’re missing out by unplugging, but parents can help their kids find ways to work through this fear. “Encourage your kids to focus on activities they can do with others that can help take their minds off any negative thoughts,” says Elizabeth K. Englander, Ph.D., executive director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.
“Suggest that they take a walk around camp to look at things to do: go swimming or out in a canoe; or even read a book or play a board game. Remind your kids that when they occupy your brain with sights and sounds, it forgets to worry!”
3. Build better boundaries
The ubiquity of screens over the past year can make the process of disconnecting seem like a particularly daunting one, but it’s essential for kids’ development. “In order for children to re-establish face-to-face social skills, they need the space to do so without the distraction of a device,” says Meghan Owenz, Ph.D., Assistant Teaching Professor, Rehabilitation and Human Services, Penn State Berks. That means parents need to have frank and open discussions with their kids about what will and won’t be allowed as they move forward.
“With clear boundaries around device use,” says Owenz, “children know what to expect and develop other skills.”
4. Take a vacation (from your screens)
Sometimes you just need to get away from it all. “If your family can take a screen-free vacation for a week or more (ideally, 2–4 weeks), it will provide a period when your child’s brain can start coming back to more normal functioning and new, healthier patterns can be established,” says Hilarie Cash, Ph.D., LMHC, CSAT, WSGC, chief clinical officer of reSTART Center for Digital Technology Sustainability.
“Alternatively, if such a screen-free period is not possible, then a slow, steady cutting back on screen-time can be conducted, with alternative activities introduced and encouraged, all the while discussing with your children why this is important and engaging with them as you figure out the new limits.” Cash reminds parents that kids are always watching and learning, so it’s important that you follow the same rules when you’re together.
5. Time travel together
The slower summer months can provide families with important, real-life bonding time that the busy school year might not allow.
“Bonding in real life should be the priority for all of us — even if it’s just a trip to the store or the local library — so that when summer is over, we will have strengthened relationships and support systems as we pick up our technological tools again,” says Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov, J.D.
Milovidov recommends sharing stories with your kids about technology and entertainment in the “good ol’ days” and encouraging them to experience what life was like in different eras by playing with everything from classic board games and jump ropes to marbles and Polaroid cameras.
6. Make simple substitutions
One of the easiest and most impactful ways to cut down on screen use is to substitute books for phones at bedtime. “This helps children cut down on overall screen time, improves their sleep, and keeps up their reading skills over the summer,” says Cori Cross, M.D. For parents who are struggling to get their kids excited about reading, Cross suggests developing fun goals as a family.
“Keep track of how many nights they read before bed,” she says. “If they meet their weekly goal, the family can celebrate with a fun weekly dessert such as Friday night s’mores or mini root beer floats.”
7. Explore screen freedom
Good weather is a great excuse to get the whole family outside. “Summer is a time to explore and go on new adventures, breathe fresh air, and be present without the distraction of screens,” says Cam Adair, founder of Game Quitters. Adair recommends turning screen-free time into a fun experiment.
“Start by taking a break and spending more time offline. Be curious and notice what you enjoy about it. It can feel nice to disconnect and quiet the noise of social media, and this contrast can help us live a more balanced life.”
8. Stay focused
Living through screens all the time, it can be easy to miss the big picture, but it’s important for parents not to lose sight of the core ingredients that are essential for children’s growth.
“We must teach our children to look within and develop the ability to express and verbalize thought, empathize with others, and express their own concerns, both positive and negative,” say Laurel and Norm Barrie of Camp Connection. They remind parents that truly caring for children means listening to what they have to say, even when it’s not what you want to hear. “And finally,” they add, “helping your children navigate all this will be your children’s reward, nurtured by you, the parent.”
9. Stare at the big screen
There’s nothing like lying under the stars as a family, searching for shooting stars and learning how to identify the constellations. “We used to huddle together on our picnic table for what felt like hours with our children of all ages,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D.
“Screens have deleted the time for daydreaming, for gazing at the real clouds, for solitude. Encourage your kids to read the wonderful myths from different cultures that tell stories about the constellations, and invite everyone to make up their own stories about what they see in the night sky. There’s something awe-inspiring and cozy about staring at the big screen and sharing that vast space together.”
10. Ride the summertime wave
Summertime presents an opportunity to reevaluate family media use norms that are established during the school year. “Parents can piggyback on natural and required shifts brought about by summer camp or family vacations to implement new patterns for media use,” explains David S. Bickham, Ph.D., of the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Digital Wellness Lab in the Division of Adolescent Young Adult Medicine.
“Say things like ‘Camp starts earlier than school so we’ll need to put phones away an hour earlier each night this week,” or “We should leave our phones behind when we go to the beach so that they don’t get broken, lost or stolen. Taking these opportunities can help reset your family’s use habits and move you all toward being more intentional users.”
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Children and Screens and republished with permission.