Screening Out the Screens

There are good reasons and simple ways to cut down your child's screen time this summer.

Summer is here, but even though the kids are out of school, the parenting challenges continue. Often the idealized summers of our own childhoods clash with the reality of those of our tech-savvy teens. While many of us remember long, lazy days spent outdoors wandering the neighborhood in search of adventure, our own kids’ lives seem filled with too many hours of eyes and minds glued to screens. Rather than give up the battle entirely, let’s look at some ways to help our kids pull the plug or at least loosen it.

Why Bother?

Outside of the fact that it’s simply annoying, if not creepy, to live with zoned-out zombies, is there really a good reason to limit your child’s screen time? The answer appears to be a resounding “Yes,” and there is more and more science to back that up.

Studies with both mice and humans have shown a correlation between excessive screen time and decreased attention spans and negative effects on learning.

A 2015 report in Common Sense Media found that the average child in America spends more time on electronic media than going to school. Teens use an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day, and tweens use an average of six hours, not including the time spent using media for school and homework.

All this screen time, scientists are discovering, releases the chemical dopamine in the reward centers of our teens’ developing brains. This is the same chemical released with activities like drinking alcohol. Research has shown that those who play three hours of video games a day or more have M.R.I. brain scans that show patterns similar to people who are addicted to drugs. So, the short answer is yes. There is reason to be concerned.

What about Your Use of Screens?

Teens have a finely tuned B.S. meter, and they can spot hypocrisy a mile away, so before you start laying down the law with your kids, take a look at your own screen use. You can’t expect  your kids put their devices down if your own device is constantly in your hand. Modeling sensible behavior yourself is the first step. Be sure it’s not you setting the bad example.

Control the Devices

Establish boundaries that create natural barriers or limitations to screen use. For example, keep computers, TVs and video games out of bedrooms and in common areas such as the family room. Enforce a no-cell-phone policy during dinner. Consider purchasing a new router with a mobile app that allows you to easily pause WiFi access during specified times, such as during meals or when doing homework. Require cell phones to be charged overnight in a common area. Remember, however, these controls are much more effective if you, as parents, subscribe to them too.


The carrot is more effective than the stick. Requiring certain activities or tasks to be completed before accessing screens can be a good way to limit screen time. Encourage your child to pursue other worthwhile activities and get a few things done around the house.

Depending on your child’s age, perhaps 30 minutes of outside activity or creative engagement such as writing or drawing has to be completed before turning to screens. Or maybe it’s walking the dog, making beds and doing laundry. Consider changing the password for your WiFi or for a particular device and allowing your child to “earn” the new password by completing other activities. Be creative.

Offer Alternatives

Trips to the pool, library, zoo, park or bowling alley are great ways to ditch the devices and spend time together as a family during the summer months. Encourage older kids to volunteer at the food bank or animal shelter. If both parents work, consider enrolling children in camps or other activities. Help your child learn a new sport or hobby or skill. The best way to reduce screen time may be as simple (or as challenging) as offering kids better options.

Without a doubt, limiting screen time takes creativity and planning, especially during the long days of summer break. As difficult as it may at first seem, the rewards are well worth the effort. Not only are you ameliorating the negative effects on your child’s developing brain, you may also discover a deeper and more enjoyable relationship with your offspring and a healthier, happier family dynamic.

JulieJulie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.

Categories: Tweens & Teens