A psychologist’s digital tips for summer that last all year long
School is out and summer routines, or lack of routines, are in full swing. Most kids end the school year exhausted but on a high. They generally spend more time outdoors, heading to the beach, or just hanging out with their friends in the sunshine. But like all highs, there comes a time when it wears off.
And this is when kids tend, now more than ever, to turn to phones and digital devices to escape any feelings of isolation, boredom, or loneliness which research increasingly shows have much the same addictive power as drugs. And just like with drugs, many kids are not fully aware of the dangers. The technological equivalent is that we have a wave of “digital illiterates”. If your child is like most, then they probably know even more about technology than you do. But what I am referring to here is that they are much less aware of the dangers. And I’m not just talking about digital addiction. I’m talking about everything else lurking on the internet–the bullies, groomers, scammers…
Fortunately there are parental control tools that can massively help parents get greater peace of mind while their children are on the internet over the summer and all year long. And I continually recommend these kind of tools to parents and my patients. But once you have one, you need to know what kind of time limits to set and stick with them. This, of course, varies with your child’s age and personality. But, in my experience, the amount of screen time should not change in the summer or at any time of time of year. Though it can be extra tempting in the summer to be a little lax on the rules, the problem with giving more screen time is a habit is quickly formed. This means returning to shorter time limits in the fall is extremely difficult. I see more patients in September than any other time of the year exactly for this reason.
One of my patients told me, “I feel like now that I’ve finished school and done my part, I have the right to do whatever I want without my parents bugging me all the time.” And to some degree he’s right, but kids and teens need limits, whether they realize it or not. And it’s a parent’s job to set them and stick to them.
So here are some summer screen time tips that I recommend to help find that balance and enjoy the freedom of summer, without falling into digital addiction or using technology as a crutch for the summertime blues:
- Don’t give extra screen time over the summer. Just because kids have extra time does not mean they should fill it with more screen time. It’s a downward slope that leads to bad habits that are difficult to fix once summer is over.
- Don’t use screen time as a bartering tool. It’s easier said than done, but resist the temptation to use screen time as a punishment or a reward. This can easily turn into blackmail and is the wrong way to educate your children. Having good grades, doing well at sports, and doing chores are part of building good character and should have nothing to do with winning or losing screen time.
- Don’t give up. Parents usually give up for two reasons: we think we’re helping our kids by giving them what they want or we give in to their insistence. Kids are masters at the art of getting what they want. Set your rules and stick to them, all year long. This is absolutely key and really the golden rule of parenting when it comes to screen time. Keep in mind this does not mean NO screen time. Prohibiting screen time just leads to rebellion.
- Go outside! I refuse to believe kids are happier left alone with a screen than when they’re with their friends. We really have to encourage this. We have to suggest activities, insist, be there for them, and spend time with them. Sadly, some kids don’t even get to enjoy the high of going to the beach and hanging out with friends, making real contact. As this article by the New York Times explains, for many, spending time outdoors and having human contact has become a sort of luxury good. No matter your income level, do whatever you can to simply get out of the house.
It makes me really sad to see the increasing number of kids coming to my office with digital addiction or technology-related problems. It tells me that neither parents nor children are fully prepared for the challenges of the digital age. This is an important point. One thing is knowing that your child is not ready to have a mobile phone. Another is knowing that your child might be ready to have one, but you as a parent are not ready to enforce it. And though I often recommend parental control apps, it is not a cure-all. You cannot just set it up and walk away.
Once trouble strikes, therapy is a great help. But there is so much more we as a society need to do to help prevent children from coming to my office in the first place. Schools need to do more to educate children on the dangers of the internet, like this successful new initiative from a school in Essen, Germany that has teens come to talk to younger children about the dangers of texting. Governments also need to set stricter laws to protect children online and to encourage parents to take more responsibility.
Much of that is beyond your control, but a parent’s number one job is still in your hands, or should I say in your heart, and that is to love, love, love your children. And part of that love is tough love–setting limits and sticking to them. Summer is a time for freedom, and it is fertile ground to create new habits. It’s your job as a parent to make sure they are healthy ones.