Parents find gaming and smartphone usage can surge during winter school breaks, especially with elementary and middle-school kids.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents of kids age 6 and older limit screen time consistently — and limit it to just one hour between ages 2 and 5.
But, as Ann Steel, a Bellevue mental-health counselor who specializes in pediatric and adult technology overuse, explains, parents have a hard time keeping kids within those limits. “Ideally, I would like to see vacation as not this: ‘Oh, my gosh, I'm out of school. Now I can binge on Fortnite 24-7,’” said Steel, laughing.
“Overall, what's changed, I think, is that younger and younger kids are spending more and more time on electronics,” said Steel, who is also a family physician by training. “I think the main thing that I see is the shift downward in the age where kids are becoming focused on these things.”
Steel recognizes that for many families, screen time can be a significant source of strife. There is a red flag that your kid has been getting more screen time than he or she can handle: “A child that is constantly begging for more time, asking for more time, can't manage their own time … and that's the main focus of their life, then you have a problem,” Steel explained, noting that if kids can play a game for an hour or two on weekends, and then leave it alone, they’re doing all right.
But a child misbehaving — with “irritability, sleep problems, crankiness, back talk, fighting with a sibling,” can all be indications of a screen-time problem, too, according to Steel.
Screen time has become so pervasive in our day-to-day life, though, that sometimes a family needs help … from other families.
“‘It takes a village’ may be overused, but in the case of screen time I think parents really need to band together. I suggest to all my clients that they talk about their worries about too much screen time or gaming with all of their neighbors, relatives, teachers, friends, and particularly the moms of their kid's friends,” said Steel, warning that parents might feel hesitant to do that because other parents often dismiss concerns about the pervasive video game-playing culture, which often draws in boys in particular.
“You will find a few families with your same values and then try to have these families become a bigger part of your social circle,” said Steel. “I think boys still do want to get dirty, play outside, build forts and interact in person with peers if we give them the chance.”
If kids are interested primarily in screen time, it’s a clear sign that more healthful activities need to be introduced to fill up the schedule instead. “It's about looking at your life and saying: Is my child filling their life with friends, time in person, sports, homework, school, sleep, and all the things that they need to be doing?” she said.
“And then it's hard to fit in that even two hours of media time.”
Limiting time devoted to screens isn’t just for kids. Parents are often just as preoccupied with their small glowing rectangles, modeling to their offspring that this is the right behavior — how adults should spend much of their time.
“I recommend that everyone in the entire family, parents, et cetera, have some kind of time-monitoring app … Think of it as health,” said Steel, recommending parents approach it as a whole family, without singling out any one child or adult, and look at is a way to build healthy habits for everyone, like, say, choosing “vegetables versus sugar.”
One question Steel hears frequently is about what age a child should be allowed to have a smartphone. Over time, and as the technology has proliferated, she has seen the age slide from high school to middle school to late elementary school, which she said is just too early. “Kids need to focus on actual peer interactions before they get the phone-to-phone interaction, so that they know how to really interact socially with others,” said Steel.
“Kids are more wired for pleasure than we are, and it's fun and engrossing. And so they're going to have a hard time controlling it.”
Steel is a fan of the movement Wait Until 8th, which advocates a pledge to wait to give a child a phone until at least eighth grade.
So, what’s a family to do during the gloomy grayness of a Seattle winter vacation?
Families in which parents can’t be home from work during break will have a tougher time if the kids are tech-focused, but kids can be encouraged to monitor time spent on games — or even to use computers to pursue some creative interests, such as making music or new mixes, and creating art or learning coding. Alternatively, they could do some art or learn a new skill, like cooking.
Steel calls for adding “big fun” during school vacations, recommending that parents plan camps or day trips or plan other activities with friends and family over school breaks. Indoor water parks, swimming pools, museums, and trampoline parks are all great ideas for getting kids out there and keeping it social.
Steel’s prescription? “Healthy, old-fashioned fun with the whole family.”
Here are Steel’s 228 Things to Do Without Screens
Common Sense Media’s technology use contracts for families