By Dr. Michael Oberschneider
Technology is ubiquitous: computers, tablets, gaming systems, smartphones — wherever we are or go these days, it seems that some sort of screen is right there with us. And while there are plenty of advantages to having technology be so accessible, overuse can become problematic for many. More specifically, research has shown that children and teens who spend too much time using technology experience higher rates of learning problems, behavioral problems, emotional problems, social problems, ADHD and obesity.
With summer — and a lot more down time — coming up, now is an excellent time to consider the ways in which you want your children or teens to have more balance in their lives with technology. But convincing your children to turn off their screens and put down their devices to engage more as a family can be a hard sell, especially if your children currently overindulge in technology.
I offer the following four tips to help you better manage your children’s technology use so they (and you) can enjoy more screen-free family fun this summer break — and beyond!
Get Amish. As a child psychologist, I often recommend a screen-free evening once a week to families when preoccupation with technology has become a problem. I’ve termed this night “Amish Night” since the Amish typically do not use technology in their daily lives. Cooking dinner, getting outside, playing board games, doing arts and crafts, going to the gym, baking cookies, going on a treasure hunt, putting together a puzzle, playing hide-and-seek, going to the library, or doing some organizing or cleaning together are a few screen-free family fun ideas to consider.
Get physical. Research has shown that physical activity improves academic performance — including both higher grades and better standardized test performance. While each family has unique interests, there are a number of fun, screen-free, physically oriented things you can do together: go on a nature hike or a family bike ride, garden, go bowling, go camping, join a gym, ride horses and so on. Make a point of doing something physical together on a regular basis, perhaps as a standing date once or twice a week.
Get engaged. Whether you live in an urban setting, a rural one or someplace in-between, teaching your children about their community and getting them involved is a great way to have some screen-free fun together as a family. The Chamber of Commerce here in Loudoun County has plenty of information about our area’s culture and history.
Visiting the local humane society to learn about animals might also be fun for some. Or visit local shops or bookstores. Attending a local musical performance, event, or play is also a great family outing.
Virginia is certainly rich with historical monuments and sites, so perhaps a trip to Gettysburg or Williamsburg or visiting the museums in nearby Washington, D.C., can be a big part of your screen-free time together this summer.
Get altruistic. Numerous research studies have found that oxytocin — a natural brain chemical that is released when we engage in positive social interactions — occurs at higher levels when we are empathic and generous with others. That warm and fuzzy feeling you get from holding a baby or from doing good in the world and helping others is literally a chemical reaction.
So, maybe visit a retirement home with your children and read books to the residents, or gather old clothes and toys together to donate, or commit to volunteer once a week or once a month in some other way that helps others. These are just a few ideas to consider for your screen-free family fun moments.
And for summer vacations, I recommend leaving as much technology behind as you can so you can fully be in the moment. Of course, you’ll likely need your smartphones as adults, but do your children or teens really need to be on their phones or devices on a family vacation?
By implementing the above tips as a family — and with some time and practice — your children’s screen and media time management should improve. You also get to truly enjoy the time you spend together without technology.
Remember, technology should be a positive thing for children and teens, and when used in moderation and appropriately, it can complement and enhance their lives. But there also are plenty of moments when it’s good to disconnect from screens and instead connect with loved ones. ML
Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice located in Ashburn, Virginia. He has been featured as a mental health expert on CNN, “Good Morning America” and other popular media outlets, and he has written articles for several news agencies, including the Washington Post. Dr. Oberschneider has also received Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top Therapist” honor for his work with children and adolescents. His children’s book, “Ollie Outside: Screen Free Fun,” was published in 2016 with Free Spirt Publishing. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife, Liz, and his two children, Ava and Otto.