The Myth of the Overscheduled Child

Is your underscheduled child becoming obsessed with his screen?
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Healthy free time?

Chances are, you have read articles, talked with friends, and given quite a bit of thought to the challenges that arise with filling our childrens’ schedules with extracurricular activities. Experts warn us of the dangers of our trophy kids not having enough mental down time and tell us that childhood anxiety is on the rise. However, with a portable screen on every kitchen table, in every car, and on every bedroom nightstand, our kids are unable to experience healthy free-time and have the freedom to be kids.

There is a new concern and a new problem we face in the digital age. Children who lack structure in their day may be turning to screens to fill the void.  Could it be that extra free-time means more screen-time and thus more anxiety than an extra sport or music lesson would bring? Is all this free-time pushing them toward screen addiction?

Statistics tell us that children spend their free time out of school in front of a screen nine hours a day, instead of out in nature or engaged in other beneficial and meaningful childhood activities. Some hours might be spent in a sport or with a musical instrument, but the majority of hours are too easily filled with screens. When this truth is finally revealed, it is shocking to most parents how much time their kids spend looking at screens each day, not to mention the questionable content.  Even over-scheduled children can be at risk for screen addiction. Time waiting between activities or down time at their activities (even traveling back and forth in the car) often allows for added unnecessary screen time.

Is the myth of the over-scheduled child real? Not always. As I work with families, they tell me that they are creating more down time: “We let them quit sports when it gets hard, quit music lessons because it isn’t their thing, and quit drama club because practice takes up four afternoons a week.” These intentions to allow more free time can backfire. Instead of plugging into down-time and creative play, they are plugging into screens instead. Unfortunately, they are trading one potentially hard activity that is healthy for their brain development, for another that is easy, yet more stressful, and in the long run, more anxiety-producing and addictive.

Science tells us that young people having free-time with a screen or video game in their hands is not genuine down time–it is actually a hyper-arousing activity which causes multiple developmental concerns. Your children would be much better off with a new instrument in their hands, fielding a position on a new ball team, meeting new friends, doing volunteer work or just looking out the car window to ponder life on their way home. The added bonus of having some extra activities is that they will also have something interesting to talk about at the dinner table instead of how many levels were accomplished in the game or which YouTube or social media videos were watched.


What can a concerned tech-savvy parent do?

  1. Pay attention and make a list of daily screen use for your children including school use. In the same way one would log their food intake for a week, parents should log their digital diet for one week to identify problem spots. It may turn out that the round-trip car ride to piano meets their daily “screen” requirement.
  2. Adjust access. Remove screens from bedrooms, the den, the car, and the kitchen table.
  3. Screen block. Set aside only 30 minutes or one hour each day for screens to come out. Just as we don’t keep candy bars on the kitchen table, we should be mindful of the digital candy we have lying around the house.
  4. Get educated. Medical science is very clear on the impact screen use has on the developing brain. It is the parent’s responsibility to learn about this impact.
  5. Keep screen replacements around your house and in your car. Non-tech activities, such as ThinkFun games, books, cards, art supplies, etc. make great choices.

Think through your childrens’ schedules and don’t be afraid to sign them up for a few lessons as an alternative to screen time. Remember to balance their activities with real, honest-to-goodness, non-screen down time, and watch the harmony return to your home!

For more information on striking that balance between childhood and screens, visit us at familiesmanagingmedia.com.