How to Keep Your Kids Away From Screen Time This Summer

Originally published June 29, 2016 in The Seattle Times June 29, 2016; by Jillian O'Connor, Seattle Times news producer

More time parked in front of a screen means less time for playing, or reading, or being with people, or learning. It's not just harmless fun.

Kids aren’t required to hit the books on vacation, but that doesn’t mean they should begin forging a mind meld with an iPad, either.

Once school is out and kids have less to do, many parents find themselves giving in to requests for video game time, another turn on the smartphone, and lots and lots of TV. (All known as screen time.) And with tweens and teens, parents may not have a lot of control at all because kids have their own devices — and parents have less control over how that time is spent.

But what’s the harm? It’s just a little entertainment, right?

“When you use screen time or increase your screen time, you’re generally taking away from other activities,” said Dr. Alexander Hamling, a pediatrician at Pacific Medical Centers. “Outdoor activities. Reading, learning activities, so it really becomes kind of a substitution for how kids can learn and interact with other kids.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends no more than an hour or two a day of screen time for kids over 2. (And for children less than 2 years old, the AAP recommends no screen time at all.)

“When you use screen time or increase your screen time, you’re generally taking away from other activities,” said Dr. Alexander Hamling, a pediatrician at Pacific Medical Centers. “Outdoor activities. Reading, learning activities, so it really becomes kind of a substitution for how kids can learn and interact with other kids.”

“It’s much easier to start limiting screen time with a 5-year-old than it is with your 15-year-old,” said Hamling.

One way to start is to create a technology-free zone, such as the dinner table. Keeping tech and televisions out of kids’ bedrooms can also help help reduce the temptation to turn to electronics for entertainment.

Hamling suggests shifting the focus away from media: Parents can help get kids engaged with real-world activities by building a family calendar, especially focusing on outdoor family events, so kids know what will be happening each week. If kids know they have plans to look forward to, they’re less likely to fill in the time with another round of video games, he said.

Heading out to the movies counts as screen time, too — time that could be better spent.

“If you’re going to go to the movies and see a two-hour cartoon, it means that you didn’t spend two hours outside on a nature walk, or two hours picking flowers, or two hours coloring or reading books in the library,” said Hamling.

“If screen time becomes your kid’s priority, that’s more detrimental than the sheer number of hours that they watch.”