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Screens and the Summer, 2.0

Updated: Jun 26

The school year has ended, the birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and your child is already bored (cue: "can I play on my tablet?"). Summer seems like a natural reset for screen time, but while there is nicer weather, there may also be more unstructured time - and that can be a difficult thing to navigate. Most kids are excited and eager to do lots of summer things - and for lots of kids, that might mean more screen time. In this post, there are some things to consider for screen time in the summer, and as a bonus, Carrie Gardner, LMHC, has rounded up some interesting studies for us - check that out here.

Here are some ideas to consider during the summer:

  • Does your child spend more time on screens than any other activity per day?

  • Do they spend time with their peers? Do they spend time moving their body?

  • Are they getting fresh air and time outside?

  • Does screen time interfere with sleep, meals, responsibilities (e.g., during the school year, this may be doing homework)?

  • Do they have a chore or something they are responsible for over the summer? This doesn’t have to mean vacuuming or unloading the dishwasher. It could be something small, like putting their pajamas in the hamper or watering a plant.

  • How are they spending their screen time? Are they watching and learning dances? Creating a cool imaginary world? Playing a game with friends?

  • Do you have any screen free activities or screen free zones in the house? Meals and the time right before bedtime are ideally screen free.

  • How often do you pick up your own phone? Teenagers can spot a hypocritical situation a mile away.

These questions are mostly based on how screen time actually impacts our brain. More and more researchers are thinking about the connection between screen time and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers the brain) . Dopamine is a neurotransmiter that is linked to mood, motivation, pleasure and also reinforcement. Here's how it works in relation to screen time - when something pleasant happens on a screen, there's a slight boost in dopamine, but it's only temporary, not long lasting. That little boost probably leads you to want more, and so you need more of those pleasant moments on screens to keep the dopamine flowing. So, it basically desensitizes the brain's reward system. This also is a main factor in how difficult it is for kids (and adults) to transition away from their screen - the dopamine will stop.

The other neurotransmitter that is discussed in relation to screens is serotonin. When screen time levels reach their all-time highs, that time spent on screens takes away from other actives. That lack of activity can lead to lower levels of serotonin in the brain, which can result in increased anxiety, low mood and irritibity.

We've all heard the recommendation of less than 2 hours/day of screen time for ages 5+, less than an hour/day for 2-5, and really no screen time for anyone under the age of 2. I have to document that so I don’t go to psychologist jail. In reality, every time that gets mentioned, parents end up feeling badly. Yes, less screen time is better. No question about that. But, if your child is getting more than two hours of screen time a day (like, say, almost all of the kids that I know), it’s important to remember that not all screen time is created equally. Here are some other tips/strategies to consider to help:

  • Bigger screens are better (better for posture, family involvement, less likely to end in a power struggle, etc.) - so family movie night will always trump a game on a phone in my book. Actually, I wouldn’t even count a family movie night as screen time, especially if there is popcorn.

  • Smaller intervals of screen time are better than one large chunk. Break it up so screen time occurs more than once during the day (and try for shorter periods of time). Disclaimer here: if your child has an epic meltdown every single time there is a transition away from screen time, you can go ahead and skip this recommendation and stick to one interval of screen time.

  • Screen time during the day is better than right before bed and during meals.

  • Planned screen time is better than screens granted right after unwanted behavior. In fact, another tip is to get the less preferred task done first, before screen time.

  • What they are doing on screens does actually really matter. Is what they are doing on screens harmful in any way? There are some really cool things to do on screens, ways to connect with others, ways to be creative, ways to have fun, and it's definitely easier to get on board with that versus only looking at Instagram.

When it comes to screen time, the goal is consistency not rigidity. Will there be days where you know your child is getting way more screen time that you’d care to acknowledge? Absolutely. If you have a general game plan for screen time, but there are some days or times when they are getting more than you’d like, it’s really okay. Also, it’s okay for your child to be bored sometimes. Kids and adults alike reach for their screens to alleviate boredom, but not having anything to do can be a great opportunity for creativity.

Don't forget to model the importance of taking a break from it. Actually say out-loud: I’ve been on my phone a little too much today, I’m going to plug it in and leave it for a while. Don’t say this directly to your child, just around them.

Just because screen time has previously been set up one way in your home does not mean it’s stuck that way. You can always make a change or set a new expectation about screen time. If you do so, make sure to tell your child about it in advance, explain why you're making the change, set realistic expectations, and allow them to be upset about it (if someone asks you to stop watching your favorite show to go clean the cat litter you might have feelings about that too). You get to set the limit. Your child gets to have feelings about it.

Thanks for reading (on a screen no less!),

Dr. Kate

p.s., don't forget to check out Carrie's post here!

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