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How to Limit Kids' Screen Time with Screen Time Alternatives

Last Updated on February 8, 2021

Parenting is difficult and messy. By intentionally keeping our kids off screens for extended periods of time, we are making it even more difficult and messy for ourselves. Creating more parenting work than we would like! It’s not peaceful in our house when the kids are off their screens.

They constantly pester us with their needs and requests. They get loud. They make an honest attempt to entertain themselves off-screen, and as a result, Legos and board games get scattered all over the floors in their rooms – and our adult spaces that we would prefer to keep clean and presentable.

They fight with each other. They intrude in each other’s rooms and demand that we interfere to restore justice. They get intentionally difficult competing for the limited resource of parental attention. Oh, how much easier it is to just hand over the iPads and experience hours of parental peace and quiet, to catch up on our work, to relax!

Screen time management is much easier when kids are scheduled to do something else. Preferably, outside the home. With the phone put away. When screens are simply not an option.

Overscheduling has such a bad reputation these days. But is it deserved? The objection to overscheduling kids with sports and other extracurricular activities is that together with academic pressure, it makes them overwhelmed and compromises their mental health. It’s just too much for kids to deal with! In other words, it’s our fault as parents that our kids are anxious and frazzled.

But is it really? What changed since the year 2007 when the statistics of teen depression and anxiety started going up? Not the amount of hours spent on school and homework. Not the amount of hours spent on team sports, gymnastics, tennis, piano or any other activity. These did not cause the mental health crisis that kids and teens are experiencing today. Real world activities continue to be wholesome and protective for their young minds and bodies.

There is only one variable that changed and reshaped our kids’ world – big time. Their lives were taken over by technology. The iPhone was introduced in 2007. By 2012 it became normal for teens to own a smartphone, and in 2020 my kid at the age of 13 is the last one in his grade without the phone, and I am officially a weird parent.

According to Common Sense Media, an average teen spends 7-9 hours a day on screens – and that does not include schoolwork. They cannot put the phone down because it hijacked their brain reward system, powered by neurotransmitter dopamine. A majority of teens describe themselves as “addicted” to their smartphones. A smartphone is the dopamine dispenser that is always in their hands. And what’s making them overwhelmed is not having enough time in their day for attending to all of their digital obligations in addition to all of their real life activities. It’s just beyond human capacity, especially for a child.

Dr. Jud Brewer, MD, PhD is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist famous for his research in the field of addiction, habit change, and the “science of self-mastery”. One of his central ideas is BBO (Bigger Better Offer) – replacing addictive behavior by substituting it with a healthier one. The replacement is a behavior that feels great but does not harm you, instead, it benefits you. If we follow Dr. Brewer’s recommendation, when we take away the screens from our kids, we need to provide a substitute.

Giving kids healthy dopamine-loaded (meaning FUN) activities to satisfy their dopamine-craving emotional brain is the Bigger Better Offer: same reward, less risk. Camping, hiking, biking, skiing, church youth groups, travel – anything exciting and active, done with peers and supervised by adults. They get to do something cool, social, and productive. Dopamine cravings are satisfied in healthier ways, and there is less time left to stare at screens.

Extracurricular activities are just great. If you can afford it, and your child enjoys it – go for it! Be it sports, music, or anything else that is REAL, not VIRTUAL – it’s better for children’s development, simply because we have evolved to live in the real world! Our son’s Boy Scout troop is boy-led, which is a perfect opportunity for the boys to put their phones away and engage that growing prefrontal cortex to practice the skills of leadership and responsibility they will need in their adult lives.

Youth groups at church or another place of worship provide a healthy alternative to the often toxic peer culture of social media. Everyone shares the same moral values, and treats each other with compassion and wisdom. The result is less motivation to engage with (or produce) questionable content online. More reasons to put your phone down, talk and share with your peers in a deep and meaningful way. And have fun in a safe and supportive environment, led and supervised by cool adults – who are not your parents. So many teens today are struggling with mental health issues – they need a sanctuary to find help. This is basically group therapy – for free!

Another healthy dopamine dispenser is travel, particularly international travel. Outside the comfort zone of everyday life new experiences await: sights, sounds, flavors, relationships, culture, history, each one a dose of dopamine because of the sheer novelty of it. Just don’t hand your kids an iPad once you reach your destination and let them stay in the hotel room – drag them out, screen-free, into the streets of old European cities, the halls of the great museums, nature trails of the national parks. Give them a healthy alternative to seeking novelty and adventure on the screen – novelty is all around, in real 3D!

Each year I take my kids traveling – together as a family and one-on-one. I even had them miss some days of school for fun family vacations, guilty as charged. Screens are allowed on long airport layovers, but not during the time of exploring a destination. My daughter spent 6 hours on an exhilarating treasure hunt through the Louvre in Paris, finding masterpieces in every part of the museum. My son spent 4 days exploring the museums in Washington, DC from morning till night, and never once mentioned an iPad! We go abroad almost every summer, so that our children learn to adapt to a foreign language environment, and even go to a summer camp with kids who do not speak English.

Organizing real world experiences for your children to cultivate their sense of wonder and appreciation for our beautiful world is a great investment of time and money. Unlike their video game achievements, these they will actually remember – and treasure for life. And so will you. Writer Tim Urban calculated that by the time your kids graduate from high school, you will have already spent 93% of your total time together on this Earth

Use it well.

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