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Summer unplugged: A parents’ guide for helping kids go screen-free

Clicks tempt us. Up sprouts a friend’s pictures or your kid’s funny text. So imagine a day away from a screen, even unplugging completely for a week’s vacation with the rest of the family.

Yes, you probably should. You might pick up a book, get lost in the scenery or engage in more conversations. Research supports the benefits of spending regular time away from devices to recharge yourself, or at least setting healthy limits on electronic connections. It’s just the how.

“I think developmentally what’s so important – as kids are defining their identity – is that creativity, competency and connection are so important,” said Dr. Delaney Ruston. “We know that with what they do on the screen, 90 percent is consumption and only 3% of the time, it’s content creation.”

A physician and Seattle filmmaker, Ruston directed “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age,” a 2016 documentary covering her family’s journey toward cellphone boundaries as well as the digital age’s impact on the mental well-being of youth.

The film is shown regularly by community groups, so she’s talked to many families and kids about how to set up device rules and why that’s a good idea. The youth she’s spoken to who have left smartphones at home for vacation or camp: No regrets.

“I have yet to hear of any teens who did vacation without their devices wishing they had them,” she said. “After a couple of days without it, there seems to be some sort of a reset of that fear of missing out. The brain almost gets reset and more comfortable with just being and enjoying more, being more aware of the environment and closer with the family.

“This is rare now, I have to say; it’s not that often teens will allow their phones not to come with them on a whole vacation, but when they do, after talking to many of them over many years, they all say they’re happy that they did that. They didn’t come back feeling like they had missed out.”

Ruston said her family also talked about expectations around screen policies for the home, car, studying and sleep time. When her two kids needed to do homework, their phones were in another room. They could take 20-minute study breaks to check on them.

For sleep, devices aren’t in bedrooms. Her now 17-year-old daughter’s apps are set to turn off at 9:30 p.m., when she turns over her phone to go on a charger. A Screenagers website offers ideas and blogs around how to have such conversations with kids on screen boundaries.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers several device tips for families as well, including:

Make your own family media use plan that works for your family’s values and parenting style. Used appropriately, devices and media can enhance daily life, but used inappropriately or without thought, it can displace many important activities such as play time, family interaction, relaxation and sleep.

Set limits your kids need and expect. Know your children’s friends, both online and off and what platforms, software and apps children are using. Ruston said Apple offers its Screen Time that lets parents know how much time youth are spending on different screen activities. Apps can be regulated.

Screen time shouldn’t always be alone time. Parents can co-view, co-play and engage with children using screens. It encourages social interactions and learning. Play a video game with your kids.

Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness online, while setting examples of limiting your own screen time.

Social time

When Ruston invites guests to their home for a meal or visit, she lets parents know ahead of time about their family’s policy of putting phones away for socializing.

“Inevitably, the parents email back and say they think this is a great idea,” she said. “Either we have everyone put their devices in a basket or just by having that conversation, particularly for teenagers, then they are comfortable and don’t bring their phones out.”

“There’s a lot more interaction between adults, kids and the teens. You see kids and teens’ faces light up when adults are engaging with them in a respectful and inquisitive way. That’s one strategy when people come over for dinner, brunch or even going with us on a city walk or hike.”

Car time

“We have a phones-away policy in the car, and for that rule, I’ve said to my daughter when I drive her and friends around, ‘Either you can tell your friends or I can,’ ” Ruston said.

“Often for her dance team, when the teens get in the car, they inevitably go right to their devices. I say something kind like, ‘I totally relate to wanting to be on your phone, but we happen to have a policy of phones away in the car just because it’s a great time to talk as well as combining phone use and car time isn’t safe.’ ”

She notices that the teens talk more, and she can have a bit of conversation with them. Occasionally, a few will break the rule, so she gently brings up the question of whether they need to check something quickly or are needing to text parents.

Vacation time

Ruston said it’s helpful if you’re planning a family vacation to consider bringing at least flip phones for teens to be able to contact you. It might also work to allow a Kindle for reading, or a device only for listening to music depending on what a teen might enjoy.

If bringing a phone, perhaps consider turning off certain social media apps, she said. Families can talk before a trip about why it can help everyone have a better time in experiencing things and building relationships if all members are device-free.

“The whole point about the vacation is experiencing the vacation and the strengthening of relationships developed through shared experiences,” she said. “It’s important that parents talk from a loving place to kids about why they want to not have the distraction of devices. They want to be fully present to all the experiences that will happen.”

If it’s a driving trip, families could agree on a fun podcast all can listen to for a shared experience.

Device-necessary time

Ruston’s family also makes it clear that they can let each other know if one needs to break policy. Usually it’s with, “I just need to send this one thing quickly,” for a nod to respecting policy but recognizing that now and then a device can be a necessary tool.

That’s part of give-and-take, with input from kids and being open to compromise, said Ruston, who is seeing more schools, communities and parents discussing when and how to put devices away.

“The more we as parents, students and teachers all talk about these issues, the more it becomes the norm that we recognize that free time becomes automatically screen time unless we become proactive,” she said.

“We’re starting to create as a society more norms of which we delineate times where devices are put away, such as for vacations and other times in schools and in the home.”

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