Fill Free Time With Less Screen Time

The latest 'Families Managing Media' column
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Gone are the days when the only choices that had to be made after school was whether to bike, scooter or skateboard to a friend’s house. Video games like Fortnite, YouTube, and other screen distractions now fall in line with the list of after-school activity choices. As parents, we strive to structure our children’s extracurricular activities based on our schedules and their individual needs, but many parents miss the importance of paying attention to the part of their kids’ free time and downtime that is now spent on screens. 

What’s wrong with filling free time with leisure screens? After all, kids need to relax. Yet science tells us that screen-filled time does not promote healthy habits the way real-life free time can. Screen entertainment is highly stimulating to the limbic area of your child’s brain, flooding it with a concoction of feel good chemicals, making it the opposite of relaxation. It can quickly lead to screen addiction and a dislike for healthier activities. 

Not too many years ago, parents worried about over-scheduling their children’s activities. “They need downtime!” the culture preached. In our home that meant that my oldest son filled his downtime with video games to the point that he abandoned every other activity and interest he had. Later he even dropped out of college because this leisure activity careened out of control. With my younger children, I learned that structuring their unstructured time was just as important as structuring their extracurricular activities.

Screen-filled downtime also has the potential to be physically harmful. When the majority of their downtime is filled with sedentary screen entertainment, children don’t get enough exercise and movement, face-to-face social time or creative outlets — all of which are discovered by playing hard in real life. Bad habits can form as they choose the easier low-effort, high-reward activity over the more difficult work of playing outside the house, reading or inventing a game in a group setting. Here are some tips for parents to help kids thrive in their free time:

 

Make screen access harder. Out of sight, out of mind. Put entertainment screens away when not being used for a purpose. Keep video game consoles in a box in a closet, keep tablets out of easy view and keep smartphones in your purse. Keep TV remotes in another room away from the TV so it isn’t the first thing children reach for when they are bored. 

Make alternatives easier. Keep markers, paper and crossword puzzles on the kitchen table, jigsaw puzzles and Rubik’s Cubes in the den, and Legos easily accessible.

Bring on the books. Stock age-appropriate books in your kid’s room, and keep books and kids’ magazines out in the kitchen and den. Go to the library once a week and schedule reading time together as a family.

Maximize your time on errands. Never use screens as a babysitter when you are out. Build reading habits early by keeping real books in your purse and audio books in the car.

Provide outdoor options. Invest in a durable hanging-disk swing, a bucket of sidewalk chalk (even for older kids), Hula hoops, a basketball goal and jump ropes. Don’t forget to fill up those bike tires and upgrade the bike helmets.

Get a dog or cat. Pets are wonderful to fill downtime for your whole family and a way to build responsibility. 

 

For a list of other activities and more information on raising Screen Strong kids, go to screenstrong.com. When the primary free-time activity is a leisure screen, children won’t feel inclined to choose anything else. Leisure screens are our competition, but we can still win the game with a little structure and lots of love.

 

Melanie Hempe is the founder of Families Managing Media, a registered nurse and mom to four children. Find more at familiesmanagingmedia.com.