kdis outside playing on phone
Might these kids be running around if they were sreen-free?

Summertime can be a blessing or a curse for kids these days, depending on how they choose to spend their time. 

My advice?  Choose for them, if they’re at all inclined to overindulge on screentime. Here are some tips to get a handle on this issue:

  1. Consider a three week long “electronic fast”. Since schoolwork sometimes prohibits a clean fast from happening during the year, summer is the time take a deep breath and go for it.  Strongly consider the fast if your child is irritable, not sleeping well, has falling grades or is not performing to potential, has social difficulties, or is prone to being disorganized.  The fast can work miracles for all these things—but it must be done strictly.   
  2. Keep strict rules. For example, video games for one hour only on weekends, 1-2 hours total screentime/day (including television, facebook, internet, iPad, etc) for teens and 1 hour or less for younger children, and none for age two and under. (See American Academy of Pediatrics screentime guidelines) Use a timer to keep track.  Avoid letting your child bring a device with them to play dates, or when they go outside to play. My advice is to pull all screen privileges when rules are violated, for one day or more to set the tone that rules are to be taken seriously.  Whatever your rules are, write them down.  It’s a good idea to have everyone sign it the “Screen Rules” document, then post it where it’s easily referenced.  This will minimize “bargaining” and assures everyone’s on the same page.  
  3. Brainstorm activities. Do this for three categories: physical/active (both solo and group), creative (arts and crafts, imaginary play, building things, etc), and leisurely (reading, journaling, resting in a quiet space, board games etc). Brainstorm in writing, with your spouse and also with your child or children. You can also add paid chores or helping with home projects that have been put off. 

    Alternatively, let your child become bored (see electronic fast above)—they will eventually partake in healthy play on their own as they “come down” from being overstimulated—even if they insist they won’t! Read Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s Taking Back Childhood to convince yourself. Believing they will return to natural play sends a message that you believe they are capable, smart and strong.

  4. Establish screen-free zones. Examples include no phones during dinner, no screens in the bedroom, and turning phones in (to parents) by 9pm. For proper restorative sleep, minimize interactive screentime in the evenings. Screens emit artificially bright light that suppresses melatonin for several hours, the sleep hormone released by darkness. Avoid giving kids handheld devices for car rides. Being device-free on the road promotes healthy conversation, and those "only in the car" times accumulate quickly.   
  5. Walk the walk. Your child will not respect the rules (or you) if you are scrolling through facebook updates throughout the day and bringing an iPad into every room with you. Follow the same rules you’re expecting your child to follow, and same goes for other adults in the house. Engaging them with cards, a board game, or simply talking without screens around (including your phone!) will enhance your relationship and your child’s brain development.

It’s hard to get away from our devices, no doubt. But think of screens like junk food: sometimes we need to cleanse and detox for our brains and bodies work properly again. Aside from the numerous direct benefits of an electronic fast, the process helps parents regain perspective of what healthy play looks like. Try the fast first, then moderate screen use for the rest of the summer as strictly as you can. Try it! 

To learn how to determine screen limits that fit your child's emotional and physical makeup, see Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.

About the Author

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D.

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. is an integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist, the author of Reset Your Child's Brain, and an expert on the effects of screen-time on the developing nervous system.  

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