Here we are halfway through summer break and I'm finding that my eight-year-old son is getting a little too much screen time. Long rides in the car (or on the subway or bus) to reach far-flung destinations, waiting on lines for various activities and even playdates all inspire him to beg for my iPhone or iPad. And of course when we're at home, the TV, the laptop and the Wii all beckon.
Of course the issue of limiting screen time for kids isn't unique to summer. I'm a stickler about it year-round (even though I admit I check my own email every ten minutes). While the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests school-age children spend no more than two hours a day engaged with "entertainment media"—TV, computers, smartphones and other electronic devices—I try to keep his screen consumption to 30 minutes a day. And usually, I manage to do it without my son devolving into fits. Here are 9 easy-to-implement ideas that will help get your kids—and you!—to turn off all those screens.
1. Make screen time a reward We use the tried-and-true chart for all kinds of goals: good behavior, good grades, finished chores, etc. We've even turned it into a game by creating a paper board modeled on Candy Land (he's a little old for it but he still enjoys it). He racks up minutes of screen time as he makes his way around the board.
2. Have a wide range of fun alternate downtime activities at your fingertips Some parents switch on the screens at the end of the day, when they (and their kids) seem too exhausted to do anything else. That never worked for us, since I found that screen time ended up stimulating my son and keeping him up at night. So I created a Quiet Activity Jar based on a post on What We Do All Day. I took a sand pail and filled it with Popsicle sticks labeled with lots of quiet play options: Play-Doh, drawing, crafting, card games, reading and other sedentary activities. So instead of turning on the TV or iPad, he picks out a stick. Need inspiration? Check out our list of 50 simple indoor activities.
3. Model good screen-time behavior This is a killer for me since I work from home and my son sees me constantly typing away on my laptop and answering emails on my phone. It took a while for him to realize that I am working and not playing, and although he gets that now, I realize that there are times when I need to put the technology away and practice what I preach. It's important to have daily screen-free hours for the whole family when everyone unplugs, like mealtimes and those precious few hours between work and the kids' bedtime. If you must connect at night, try to do it after the children are asleep.
4. Try a screen-time fast My husband recently stepped off the grid for a week: no emails, no Facebook, no Twitter and no Angry Birds. It really helped clear his head. See if your kids can go a day without a screen (you'll probably have to do it, too) and if you're successful, try two days, then more. At first the kids may walk into their room full of toys and complain that there's nothing to do. But you'd be surprised how quickly they remember how to play again.
5. Get the kids moving instead Many studies have claimed that there's a link between screen time and childhood obesity, but even if you're dubious, physical activity is good for everyone. My son wasn't a natural athlete and his pediatrician encouraged us to get him into a team sport. So I bartered sports for screen time: Every hour of any physical activity earns him 10 minutes. Another idea is to try Let's Move!, the wellness initiative launched by Michelle Obama. You can download a cool chart where kids can set and track their healthy activity goals themselves. While there are certainly plenty of ways to get moving outdoors, including free sports programs, swimming lessons and running around our city's lovely parks, you can be active at home, too. Here are 25 exercise games you can do in your small NYC apartment.
6. Set a strict schedule Some families prefer not to play games when it comes to screen time. Instead, they come up with a schedule and stick to it, no matter what. No screen time at all during the school week is a popular choice. Or just a few minutes in the morning or evening before school or before bedtime. Whatever you decide, be consistent. Don't bend the rules or make exceptions or you risk undermining yourself.
7. Get others involved, even your kid's school Inspired by Screen-Free Week, which takes place every spring, a Maplewood, New Jersey school librarian created the Ultimate TV Turn Off Challenge in 2001, when she asked her students to forsake screen-time during the week. She even had them sign contracts! Today, friends of mine in the school district tell me it's still growing strong and encompasses all screens, not just TV, with nearly 100% student participation. The movement has spread to other schools and The New York Times even did an article about it. It doesn't take much legwork to bring the concept to your child's school.
8. Track your screen time Tracking every family members' screen time is an interesting experiment. We Can, an initiative created by the National Institutes of Health to help parents raise healthy kids, has a form to track screen-time consumption—you may be surprised by the numbers. You can also download this ScreenTime app that will help you set goals for your kids (and you!).
9. Look for high-quality content There are times when nothing but a screen will do. So I make sure my son has access to great content not just silly games. My iPad is filled with e-books and educational apps. Check out our posts on cool math apps and other smarty-pants apps for some ideas. Our New Jersey site also has a great post on apps to help prevent summer slide. Screen time can also be interactive. My son is a big fan of Scratch, a programing environment for kids created by MIT, and for math lovers there's the awesome and free Khan Academy, where they can work on a variety of skills and even level up. If you opt for TV, try to find a program the whole family can enjoy together. Your kids are much better off watching a show with you than zoning out all alone.