Get Your Head Out of Your Apps

Encouraging kid’s real-world experiences

We took our 16 year-old son on a cross-country trek to visit several National Parks two summers ago. While exploring breathtaking views on a hike in Glacier National Park, we were surrounded by kids and adults face down in their smart phones, oblivious to the natural beauty surrounding them. We are digitally obsessed in this country, and our screen time is creating a particularly bleak future for our youth.

There are a plethora of studies linking too much screen time to a variety of youth issues, such as obesity, interfering with social development or family time interruption. This article focuses on the most detrimental outcome, youth depression and suicide, and provides some not-so-typical solutions for kids to engage in the real world, along with the adults who care about them.

Why you should care
A landmark study by the Kaiser Family Foundation placed teen screen time at an average of 7.5 hours a day in 2010. More recent research has revealed even more alarming statistics. Teen suicide rates are climbing, with twice as many girls taking their own lives compared to a decade ago. An extensive 2017 research study of more than a half-million U.S. teens revealed that nearly half of youth who got five or more hours of screen time each day had experienced thoughts of suicide or prolonged periods of depression. That’s nearly double that of teens who spent fewer than an hour in front of a screen. It was said there is more likelihood of this generation taking their own life than harming someone else, making teen mental health one of society’s greatest problems.

As parents, or extended family involved in the lives of kids, we can change that.

Create a Family Media Plan
Studies show that parental involvement in limiting a child’s media use will have positive outcomes. Researchers, and even top media executives, suggest limiting screen time to about 90 minutes a day. That is a big change for most kids.

In reality, it takes a solid plan, including anticipating resistance, to set limits and divert your media savvy child to real life activities. My oldest child grew up when text messaging, MySpace and Facebook were just launching and catching fire. After a couple of $800 phone bills (there was no such thing as unlimited text and data back then), we had to not only set limits, but also become experts on diversion.

There is no one-size-fits-all plan for families because we are all different, but the American Pediatrics Society has a free Family Media Plan tool, where you can customize your own.

Creating a non-digital lifestyle
The cornerstone to teaching an unplugged lifestyle to kids is for the adults to first set boundaries for themselves. Put your smart phone aside during family time.

Get creative on fun activities that your kids can do on their own, and as a family. Discuss these options with your kids and suggest they pick something that interests them from each category.

Art: Even the smallest towns have access to community art programs nearby. Art exploration helps children form connections in their brain which helps them learn—and it’s also fun. It can be tactile—pounding clay or getting messy with paint, or expressive such as performing in a play or playing a musical instrument. There are infinite possibilities of home art projects you can set up for kids, such as these 40 popular crafts for tweens and teens.

Nature: The fresh air of the natural world is invigorating and offers endless opportunities for physical activity, which, in turn, builds strong bodies. Exposure to sunlight means children absorb vitamin D which has many positive benefits, including contributing to a strong immune system. Get inspired with these fun Fall activities around Minnesota.

Sports: Participation in sports relieves stress and depression, improves physical condition, stimulates growth and leads to improved emotional health. Team sports foster social inclusion and citizenship. Check with your local YMCA or Parks and Recreation Board for organized sports opportunities.

Museums: Providing memorable, immersive learning experiences, museums also provoke imagination, introduce unknown worlds and subject matter, and offer unique environments. There are a variety of museums to choose from, from local history to fine art, including the totally free, world-class Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Board games: In a time when family members are each going their own way, game nights offer a way to reconnect. Take a couple of hours one night a week for some edu-tainment. Games teach important life skills such as following directions, taking turns and being patient. There are also lessons in sportsmanship—being good winners and losers. Probably most significant is families talk to each other while having fun and making memories.

Reading: Old fashioned print books are making a comeback, with sales increasing for the third year in a row, according to the Association of American Publishers, while ebook sales have been declining. Books provide unlimited choices for kids to explore other worlds and spark imagination. Libraries not only provide free books, but often other great programs for kids of all ages.

Live performances: Kids will be astounded at the immersive experience of live theater, which is much different than sitting in front of the TV. Performing arts teach childrn how to think creatively through imagination, how to appreciate people of all kinds and how to respect other points of view. Many theaters offer family of community nights to view live productions on the cheap, or check out discounted Sunday matinee prices.

Volunteering: Volunteering helps engage kid’s natural empathic sense by imagining what others are going through. But you have to talk about the purpose and experience of volunteering, especially if recipients aren’t visible in the process. Our son collected and dropped off clothing and blankets for veterans, alongside his disabled veteran grandfather who explained why the task was meaningful to the recipients.

Young people can make a difference through their own efforts and skills. Kids can learn and grow abilities that translate into job skills when they have early opportunities to work in a structured environment. My daughter chose to volunteer at a no-kill animal shelter near our house, and was so proud of remodeling one of the cat houses on her own, building her self-confidence for other projects.

Volunteering also affords kids opportunities to work alongside other people, look beyond their own self-centered needs, helping others and their community. Helping out also has mental health rewards, reducing stress and elevating moods.

There is a practical side to encouraging your kids to volunteer. There were few tween and teen activities during the summer in our rural area, and we didn’t want our kids growing roots in front of the TV or computer at home. Many nonprofits accept young volunteers. We helped gather agency info for the kids to choose from, or sometimes they went to work with us to volunteer. Even a little indentured servitude helped them gain life skills and got them out into the real world.

Conclusion
Environment plays a key role in a child’s mental health. It is not enough to just set limits on youth screen time, we must find engaging substitute activities to lure them back into the real-world, engaging with people, exploring creativity, exercising their bodies and minds. Set aside your smart phone, turn off the computer and TV, and tune into healthy real-world activities with youth. It may just save a life.

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