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Digital Detox: With the school year underway, parents can help set gradual boundaries about screen time

THIS PICTURE IS CROPPED LIKE THIS BECAUSE THE PARENT OF EVERY KID THAT I PHOTOGRPHED SAID NO.----- A student at Canfield Middle School uses her cell phone before the start of classes on Wednesday, March 14, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
THIS PICTURE IS CROPPED LIKE THIS BECAUSE THE PARENT OF EVERY KID THAT I PHOTOGRPHED SAID NO.----- A student at Canfield Middle School uses her cell phone before the start of classes on Wednesday, March 14, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Heading back to school isn’t just about buying new pencils and meeting new teachers.

Parents now face another challenge: convincing kids to swap Minecraft or YouTube for homework and reading.

The debate about how much and what type of screen time kids should have is nearly as old as Google, and there’s no easy answer. But there are some steps parents can take to help kids shift from more lax summer rules on screens to a school-year routine.

“We slowly try to have kids go to bed earlier prior to the start of school. We would also like parents to start to put limits on the amount of screen time,” said Chris Moore, a student services coordinator at Spokane Public Schools.

In general, children adapt to change best if it’s gradual and clear. That could mean slowly winding down the amount of time kids are playing video games, and setting clear rules so they know what’s expected.

Kids will react better to being told which hours are OK to be online and which ones aren’t, rather than being asked abruptly to put their tablet away.

And parents modeling good behavior is critical, Moore said. If kids are told they can’t play their game while Mom or Dad is sitting in the living room on a computer, that sends a mixed message. She suggested doing activities together as a family during screen-free times, like going for short walks.

“We need to try to find that balance and the moderation and support our kids,” she said.

With the number of different things kids and teenagers can do on phones and tablets, it’s too simplistic to talk about “screen time” as a singular thing, said Anna Marie Medina, a professor of psychology at Gonzaga University who studies clinical psychology in children.

Her 11- and 14-year-old sons play Minecraft in teams with friends in the U.K. who they met on a family vacation.

“It’s too simplistic to say that oh no, screen time is bad. Kids are learning all sorts of skills. They’re probably skills for a culture that we don’t exactly inhabit right now,” Medina said.

It’s good for parents to know what their kids are doing online, she said. The best way to do that isn’t to snoop – it’s to talk with your kids, ask about what they’re learning and be open to discussion.

In response to conflicting research about the benefits and drawbacks of kids using electronic devices, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its guidelines last fall from a one-size-fits-all approach to a set of guidelines, including a tool to make a customized “media plan” for your family.

Among their recommendations: kids under 6 should have limited screen time, under an hour a day, and parents should prioritize creative and interactive types of play.

Once they’re 6, parents can help kids by balancing media with other activities like sports, and ensuring kids get enough sleep.

There’s one area research is clear on. Using a computer, phone or tablet right before bed makes it harder to fall asleep for both children and adults.

“They’re putting themselves that much further behind in their sleep, which will directly impact their ability to learn the next day,” Moore said.

Moore said turning off the devices an hour before bedtime is good practice for everyone, not just kids.

Children shouldn’t have computers or TVs in their rooms, Medina said. The blue light they emit can disrupt sleep, and it’s also easy for our brains to start thinking of bedrooms as places to play, rather than places to sleep.

If you’re using a computer before bed in your room, “you as an organism do not connect your bedroom with relaxation sleep and you need to do that,” she said.

But perspective is important. When Medina was growing up in the 1980s, “people did all this hand-wringing about Walkmans and ‘Kids are disconnected,’ ” she said. Those fears didn’t pan out.

“Talking to people about being a parent is so hard because everyone feels very nervous about it because you’re going to get judged no matter what you do,” she said.

Parents are right to be concerned if children are in their room on the computer all day and forgo socializing or other activities. But that would be true if a kid was giving up a social life or other pursuits to do anything full-time, she said.

“You want them to be somewhat engaged socially and you want them to be out in the world but there’s no hard and fast rule,” Medina said.