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Get Ahold of Summer Screen Time

July 11, 2024

“I’ll be spending most of my free time on my phone this summer” are words parents are unlikely to hear from their kids, but there’s a good chance that screens are going to play an outsized role in filling up the free and unstructured time that summer provides. There’s a place for screen time during the spaciousness of summer, but there’s a cost to unregulated and excessive time on our devices.

The allure of the screen

Phones are incredibly useful and powerful tools. Over time, our phones have become vastly more powerful and engaging. Teams of very gifted (and well-remunerated) PhDs, engineers, and designers—the very people who know the most about focus, rewards, reinforcement, and neuropsychology—are working diligently to keep people deeply engaged with their apps, swiping and scrolling on their phones. The instant we find that we are bored, nervous, distracted, or avoiding something, the phone is there to relieve our discomfort. Roughly half of American adults admit to being addicted to their phones, and our kids are as vulnerable as we are. Give a kid a cell phone without boundaries or rules or guidance and the device can take over. 

Avoiding boredom

Every one of us has reached for our phone out of boredom: check email, text a friend, play a podcast, read the headlines, scroll Instagram, look something up, play a game. One study found that we reach for our phones an average of 350 times a day. Avoiding boredom is understandable. It’s not the most comfortable condition. In experimental conditions, researchers have found that people would rather pass the time giving themselves low-voltage electric shocks than be alone with nothing to occupy them. It’s not always easy to be with ourselves.  

Staying plugged in keeps boredom at bay, but it also diminishes reflection, the time for our minds to wander. Boredom can be a catalyst for introspection and innovation. Boredom can be the driving force in experimentation, flexing the executive functioning skills to gather resources, recruit support, and initiate novel tasks. This is especially important for our kids as they grow and develop. Periods that seem dull can be viewed as precious opportunities. 

Knowing and trusting yourself

Being an adolescent, especially a teenager, is not easy. Having a device that distracts you from your unpleasant thoughts has obvious appeal, but there’s a price to pay. When we have to deal with our own thoughts, the good and the bad, we get to know ourselves in a more authentic way. Having intentional mental downtime, free of any stream of media, allows us to cultivate a deeper relationship with ourselves, allows us to hear the still, small voice that may help us navigate the challenges of life. If we don’t learn to listen to ourselves, we must rely more intensely on feedback from others, becoming more vulnerable and fragile.

Passivity versus Creativity, Generativity, Engagement

One of the greatest downsides of screens is that they are passive by nature. When media is coming at us, we are receiving, but we are typically not generating or engaging in a meaningful way. One of the hallmarks of summer can be the creative projects we undertake when we find ourselves “bored.” Our energy can be channeled towards making or doing, or it can be channeled into passive receiving. If we lose our creative projects, we lose part of ourselves and part of the expression of who we are.

This summer, seek opportunities for your child to explore interests. When they are directly engaged in new experiences, they can learn and grow in ways that digital media don’t provide. 

Modeling a healthier relationship with our devices

Kids are constantly watching their parents for cues about how to use their phones, how often to use their phones, and in what contexts phones are appropriate. Our children are constantly observing the boundaries that we have with our devices. Every time we shift our attention from a child to a screen,we are teaching them, building up their mental model of where phones fit in the hierarchy and how important the screens are compared to the people in the room. 

Intentionally reducing screen time

While some adults admit to be completely addicted to their phones, there is a noticeable trend where more and more of them are shifting away from social media, deactivating their Facebook, Instagram, TikTok accounts—deleting the apps, intentionally reducing their screen time, and ending their obsessive engagement with content that doesn’t contribute to their happiness. 

We’ve collectively had some 15 years with our iphones, and a bit longer with social media, and for many, the bloom is off the rose: we are realizing the downsides and costs of unregulated digital engagement. Our kids are behind us in cultivating this understanding. They are still learning boundaries with their devices. But we still can influence them. What we say may have some impact, but what we do has genuine importance. Kids still pay attention and learn from us, even if they don’t always broadcast that.

Encouraging some screen-free time this summer  

In the summertime, when students are freed from some of their academic pressure, find occasions for your kid to explore and engage with the real world. Here are some quick takeaways:

  • Encourage all forms of in-person engagement over digital engagement. Reinforce any impulse to see friends rather than send Snaps to friends. 
  • Encourage all creative projects and provide resources to facilitate them. Hands-on engagement with interests will lead to greater skill development and learning.
  • Buy your child a really nice journal of their choice and encourage any attempts at self-reflection and introspection. Kids can get to know themselves better without having to share everything externally, and they may learn to validate themselves internally rather than requiring a steady stream of external validation.
  • Resist the impulse to reach for your phone when you typically would, and open up a little more free space in your day. Your routines set standards for your kid. 
  • Reframe boredom. Important things can happen when you are bored. Quiet moments are not something to be avoided at all costs. Creativity and insight are frequent companions of unstructured, media-free time. Make room for them in your life. 

Try to have real conversations with your kids about how time on their phone affects them, for the good and for the bad. Do they feel better or worse after hours on their device? What would they be doing if they weren’t spending time on a particular app? What are some things they would love to experience or skills they want to learn? Could everyone in the family agree to spend some “phone-down” time? Run some experiments; see what happens.


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