In the Fall, family members seem to run in different directions — to instrument lessons, to sports practice, to PTA meetings, and evening work commitments. Our family is so tired from all of the running to events that when we do have a moment to sit, we turn on screens for entertainment and to “decompress.” But our home time spent on screens is certainly not season-specific. This past summer when I asked parents what their kids planned to do with their free time, several responded, “I booked camps and programs every week, every day because otherwise, I’ll have to battle over screen time.” The unique challenge of this generation of parents requires us to contend with screens on a daily basis with our children. And when research is emerging about the dangers of digital life contributing to feelings of separation and disconnection, it’s no wonder parents are concerned.
Questions arise for parents on how much time children are spending on screens, the appropriateness of content children are watching, and how it may be affecting them. But there’s also an opportunity cost with screens occupying every spare moment. Parents and their children may have less time to connect and continue to build the trust that is required for dealing with life’s challenges and contributing to children’s sense of emotional well-being.
For this reason, it’s critical to consider the role media plays in our family lives. We need to discuss and decide on what our hopes and priorities for our time are as a family including time to connect with one another. And then, we need to become highly practical (how will it happen?) and intentional (when will it happen?) about scheduling or planning for it. In our increasingly busy lives, scheduling may just be the only way our meaningful connections will happen. Here are some tips for unique ways families can unplug to prioritize reconnection.
- Share for Hopes for Playing Together.
Yes, a family that plays together, stays together. How can you hope and dream collaboratively about what you really love to do together? Create a list with all family members contributing to ideas, big and small. Then, keep the list handy for times when you are tempted to go your separate ways and hover on a device. Be certain that there are plenty of small, easy, everyday kinds of ideas like playing a card game, doing a puzzle, or raking leaves together.
2. Learn about and Collaboratively Establish Boundaries for Entertaining Screen Time.
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that young children only view a maximum of one hour of high quality, developmentally-appropriate content. For older children and teens, consider that they require enough sleep at night, time to complete homework, participation in extracurricular activities, alone time, family time, and free time to play with friends. Get the facts and learn together about the opportunity costs of screen time with resources like Common Sense Media. Then, discuss what your boundaries will be for family life. Distinguish between work/school screen time and entertainment screen time. Have a timer at the ready so that your child takes responsibility for tracking his own time. Consider rules like, “friends before screens,” so that when a buddy comes knocking, your child goes out to play and sets down the device. Or when you have playdates, you discover the many ways children can play together other than video gaming. Check out the new book, “Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Kids — From Toddlers to Teenagers” for a Family Media Agreement to complete and post in a place where all can refer to it.
3. Create a Gratitude or Connection Routine or Ritual.
If we are to change habits we don’t like, then attaching a new practice to a daily routine can support that change. So consider when you are all together as a family regularly. Is it dinnertime each night? Or do you manage to have breakfast together? Do you all connect at bedtime? No matter the time of day, you can build in a moment for reflection on the goodness in your life while leaving behind all objects that may distract you including toys, books, work papers, phones, and other devices. Maybe at the end of dinnertime, you share one appreciation for one another or one thing that happened for which you are feeling grateful. The content watched in the media often contains messages of negativity, disaster, violence and at times, the worst of humanity. How then can we balance those messages with a daily dose of positive connections and gratitude?
4. Get Out in Nature Together (and leave devices at home).
Numerous research studies have shown the relationship between being in nature and an individual’s mental health. In fact, just walking outside and breathing fresh air can be a refreshing coping strategy to deal with our busy lives. But what if you decided to make a point of venturing into nature as a family? What if once a month or every other weekend, you left all of your devices behind and explored a metro park or drove out into the country, stopped at a farm stand or picked the fruit of the month? These outings will not only help to release tension and build resilience for the hard work and stress of the week ahead but will also serve to connect you to one another and to your surroundings.
5. Follow Creative Passions.
Though we make time for sporting events in our free time, how often do we engage in creative endeavors as a family? Whether you harbor a passion for cooking, your daughter loves to draw, or your son plays an instrument, how can you engage in those passions as a family? You don’t need to all draw when your daughter is drawing but could you take in an art exhibit to connect with her passion? Or could you go listen to a local jazz musician who plays the trumpet beautifully while your son is learning? Following family members’ creative inspirations can lead to heart and spirit riches that you cannot encounter in the normal routine of days. Deep dive into what gives each other joy and discover new parts of yourself and your loved ones.
Our digital age offers an expansive connection to our global community in ways that were not possible before the internet. Yet, if that exploration takes us away from our closest family members and friends, it can result in less time to build our connectedness as a family. It may take a bit more intentionality and focus to set down the devices and spend time together. But the rewards will be great if we do. Instead of that happy hormone reward that comes from video gaming, happy hormone rewards can come from deeply connecting and engaging in joy together. Those riches – the ones that fill up our hearts and souls – are well worth fighting for. They’re worth our prioritizing.