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Summer Unplugged

Navigating screen time and finding balance for kids
Boys camping with cell phone

As millions of students prepare for summer vacation, many parents may worry about endless time spent on the screen. According to Michael Rich, pediatrician and director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children's Hospital, children do spend more time on the screen during the summer — but the real challenge is finding a balance between screen time and offline activities.

“Now, the issue with screen time also should not be that the time you spend on screen is toxic, but that it is displacing something else. And if it is displacing something that is arguably a richer, more positive experience, then one should be thoughtful about that and make that choice,” Rich says. “The problem with screens as we use them is that we use them in such an open-ended way, such a way that it's a default behavior.”

He discusses the challenges of setting screen time limits in today's digital environment and offers practical strategies for structuring days with both screen and non-screen activities. One of the best ways, he says, is for parents to set good examples. 

“When we get home, we should put down our devices and focus on them, really look at them, listen to them, be silent with them, but not be distracted by our phones. Work is over ostensibly, although we don't remember that most of the time, and it's a time when you can actually enjoy them,” he says. “They're not going to be this old forever. They are constantly changing before us. So, in some ways, we need to value that time with them even more. And by doing so, we are modeling for them valuing time with us.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Rich shares insights on navigating screen time in children's lives, and addresses concerns about the impact of screens on mental health, advocating for a nuanced approach that considers individual readiness and understanding.


JILL ANDERSON: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. Michael Rich knows balance is vital in our children's lives on and off the screen. He's a pediatrician who leads the Digital Wellness Lab and the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital. As millions of children prepare for the free time that comes with summer vacation, he says families need to think about balancing their children's online and offline activities.

Finding that healthy balance can be challenging, though. I wanted to know more about what healthy screen behavior looks like, what's making it so hard to achieve it, and even more importantly, how to convince your kids to take breaks from the phone. First, I asked whether we are overly focused on screen time limits.

Michael Rich
Michael Rich

MICHAEL RICH: I think today's use of screens makes it impossible to even measure screen time. The screen time limits that were set back in the day of television, one to two hours of quality educational screen time a day, were during a period where you had broadcast television that started at one point, ended at another point. Now kids live in a continuous physical digital environment. They move seamlessly back and forth between them. So screen time can't be measured, therefore screen time limits are really an obsolete concept.

I think, though, that does not mean we should not limit screen time. And the way we should do that, actually, is have minimal non-screen time in our day, so be planful about our use of screens. The big problem with screens as they are used today is that many of the interactive media, games, sites of various kinds are designed in such a way that you lose track of time. They seek to achieve a flow state. You get caught up in it, and it keeps catching you up and bringing you back to it.

So I think that instead of having screen time limits, which actually, even in the days of television did not work because it created the forbidden fruit, we should actually build our days in a more thoughtful, structured way, and build in screen time and non-screen time.

JILL ANDERSON: Yeah, I was just thinking about that flow, which a lot of us get sucked into. And we're going into the summer, and it's a time when you would think children are going to have a lot more free time. So what should parents be thinking about when it comes to screen time consumption and that flow?

MICHAEL RICH: That's a very interesting question because we actually had a natural laboratory to study that in the summer after the year of learning remotely, where the kids were in school on screens. And we measured, both before and after the end of school, how much time kids were spending on screens because we thought, oh my goodness, we're finally free. We can go outside and we can do things. And interestingly, their screen time went up, even including the screen time they spent in class. So I think that we have to take a step back and be more mindful about it.

So what should parents do this summer? Instead of talking about screen time, plan a summer that doesn't need or doesn't use screens. If you really think about it, we did summers without phones not so long ago. We went outside and played.

But I think we have to do that in a more planful and purposeful way now. There are many summer camps for kids that don't have electronics allowed. Families can go camping, or there are actually travel agencies that will send you to places that are off the grid completely, which is amazing. But I think we just have to be more purposeful about it.

Now, the issue with screen time also should not be that the time you spend on screen is toxic, but that it is displacing something else. And if it is displacing something that is arguably a richer, more positive experience, then one should be thoughtful about that and make that choice. The problem with screens as we use them is that we use them in such an open-ended way, such a way that it's a default behavior. And I think that we all, and that includes the parents, have to really examine our behavior with screens because ultimately the kids model what we do.

JILL ANDERSON: What does it look like to have healthy media habits?

MICHAEL RICH: I talk about, instead of developing killer apps, we should develop our killer bees. Those killer bees are, be mindful in our use of screens. Most use them pretty mindlessly. We sort of reflexively check our emails.

Part of being mindful is to use them for what they do well and turn them off when that task is done, and that results in the next be, which is be balanced. Be balanced in what we do throughout the day, screens, non-screens, et cetera. And especially for parents with kids, be present. If you are staring at your smartphone, your kid is not getting the attention she or he would like.

Interestingly, one of the fairly subversive questions I ask to my patients when their parents are out of the room is, what could your parents do better? And almost invariably, the first thing out of their mouth is, pay more attention to me.

And the parents-- and I see a lot of teens. Parents say, oh, she never talks. She's sullen. She's off there. She doesn't want to know what I'm doing or have any conversation with me. In actual fact, the kids do want to spend time with their parents, but they have become used to not having that time of them being present. 
And here's a really important one for the summer especially, be bored. We have to bring back boredom. We now live in a technology-infused society that allows us never to be bored. We can't get on an elevator without pulling our phones out. We don't look up at other people on the street or the world.

And what we have to remember is that boredom is not a bad thing. It's actually the crucible of creativity and imagination, not just because it has the available space, but because it's kind of uncomfortable and we need to fill it with something. I mean, when was the last time you saw a kid lying on their back in the grass, making shapes out of the clouds? That used to happen all the time, and now we don't have that. And I think that we are missing out on our connection with the natural world, on our connections with each other, and our connections with our inner selves where we can think the new, rather than handing our attention off to the latest meme or news or TikTok.

JILL ANDERSON: I love that. As a parent, I hear often for my kid, I'm bored. I'm bored. And it's kind of become a thing in our house where I say, it's not my job to solve your boredom. You have to figure it out. 

She created a list of what are some things you could do when you're bored. But I do wonder if that's kind of almost a fallout of the screen, of always having something kind of available to entertain you, so you never have to really figure it out on your own.

MICHAEL RICH: Yeah. I think that we shouldn't look at boredom as something to avoid or distract from, but as an opportunity. Think about our adult lives. We're scrambling to have enough time to do all the things we want to do, we need to do. Time management becomes a huge issue. 
What a luxury it would be to be bored. What a luxury it would be to be able to think freely about something. I think that instead of saying, let's make a list of the ways to avoid boredom, let's make a list of the things you can do with all that time and attention at your disposal.

JILL ANDERSON: And I think that kind of rolls a little bit into what you were already saying, which is, it's not so much about avoiding the screen, but thinking of ways that you can carve out time throughout the summer to take conscious breaks from it.

MICHAEL RICH: Absolutely. If you think about it, these phones are incredibly powerful tools. They're more than a million times more powerful than the computer that landed Apollo 11 on the moon. Think about that right.

And 99% of what's on there is distraction, distraction from whatever is happening in front of you, whether it be a class in school or hanging out with your friends or going for a walk. I think we have to be very conscious of the fact that they are seductive. The software on there is designed to have us lose track of time and place. If you're going to the beach, why give up being at the beach to TikTok?

JILL ANDERSON: I want to talk about teenagers, because I suspect parents listening to this or caretakers listening to this who have teenagers might be thinking, there's no way you're going to pry that phone away from their teenager for time this summer. And how do you encourage them to engage in more offline activities and hobbies without feeling like they're missing out on something?

MICHAEL RICH: I think we should approach this less as a struggle of fighting over the phone or not the phone, but really about thinking consciously about the things-- the opportunities that they have in the summer. I think that kids who get to go out in the wilderness and figure things out are much happier, much less lonely, much less anxious than those kids who are glued to their phones all the time. But I think we should look at these alternative activities as opportunities, not as poor substitutes for the phone. 

The interesting thing about it is that when kids actually get off the phones, they are actually relieved. They feel better. They feel more at peace with themselves.

But they have to do it along with others, with their peers. We have to remember that teenagers are in a stage of life where they are stepping away from parents and nuclear family and to peers. So one of the things that we talk about with adults or with everybody and their phones is FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out. 

What kids have on top of that, particularly teenagers have, is what I call FOBLO, which is Fear Of Being Left Out, fear that if they're not involved in the constant text chatter, that people will wonder what's the matter or what's the quality of their relationship is, whatever. They ascribe a lot of qualities to it. So I think it's important for the alternate activities to involve other kids.

And I think we also can approach the summer as, let's think about the cool things we can do in summer because we're not in school. We can do geocaching. We can go to the lake. We can take long bike rides. We can do a whole lot of things that you can't do in the school year or because of the weather during the winter.

So I think that it's about shifting the perspective from what we do now, which is default to the screen, particularly to the smartphone because we have it with us all the time, to what I can do with this time that I otherwise could not do. So it's good to develop projects. It's good to develop trips. 
One of the things that parents need to do is be a little less overprotective of their kids in the physical world and let them wander a little bit. They don't learn how to navigate that outer world if they never have a chance to try and they never have a chance to make mistakes. We have to step back a little bit with the teenagers from, I'm going to be with you all the time, I'm going to be watching you all the time, because that does extend to the phone. That's helicopter parenting on steroids. And let them find their way in the world and make their mistakes and learn from them.

JILL ANDERSON: I know there's a lot of tracking that happens with these technologies as well, and parents seem to always know where their kid is and can track them down, which is just such an interesting and strange thing to think about, especially with teenagers.

MICHAEL RICH: They forget the fact that they had an adolescence without phones and without a parent in their head all the time, and they survived. In fact, they thrived. And so we've gotten to this place where we feel like 24/7 surveillance is the only way to parent. And in fact, one of the important ways to parent a teenager is to let them go a little bit and see what happens for them.

JILL ANDERSON: Is there a role at all for supervision of kids' behaviors online? Is that something that, especially in social media, we should be doing, monitoring them?

MICHAEL RICH: In my book, I talk about the three M's of parenting in the digital space, and the first is to model the behavior with screens that we want to see in our kids. And when we get home, we should put down our devices and focus on them, really look at them, listen to them, be silent with them, but not be distracted by our phones. Work is over ostensibly, although we don't remember that most of the time, and it's a time when you can actually enjoy them.

They're not going to be this old forever. They are constantly changing before us. So in some ways, we need to value that time with them even more. And by doing so, we are modeling for them valuing time with us. So model is the first M.

The second M is actually mentor your child with the use of each device, platform, application. And if you think about it, another very powerful tool that liberates them in many ways is the automobile. How do we teach them to drive? We don't toss the keys at them right and say, have at it, which is what we do with devices.

We also don't say, don't hit that tree. Don't run over people. We talk about them mastering this environment, even though we're white knuckled in the seat beside them. And I think that that's the best way to introduce the use of a smartphone, the use of social media in various ways.

And one of the reasons I use the word "mentor" is that mentors learn as much from the mentee as the mentee learns from the mentor. And I think the problem that parents have with this is they feel that the kids are so much better with tech than they are that they don't have anything to offer, and it also makes them uncomfortable not to be the ultimate expert on something. The kid has expertise.

But what that does is, first of all, it shows that the parent respects the child, loves the child, wants to know what the child is involved in, not to stop them, not to shame them or reprimand them, but to share it with them. And what that does is it allows the parents to parent in the digital space, which is so critical, and most of us default away from. We just don't.

And so by teaching and learning from them with the device or the platform or the social media, we're able to bring in the caution of impulse control, future thinking, all the executive functions that they're not going to be able to develop until their mid to late 20s. It doesn't naturally develop till then. They're naturally sensation seekers. They're naturally risk takers. And they need to do that to learn the limits and learn the way life works.

And the third M-- and this is the one that parents and kids push back against the most-- is monitor. Now, parents push back because they say, I don't have the time to monitor everywhere she goes or what she does. She's on that thing all the time. The kids say, I don't want Mom or Dad to know because their concept of privacy as a teen is so Mom and Dad can't see.

But they're completely oblivious to the rest of the world that can see it. And I usually say to them to observe the Grandma rule, which is don't post anything online you don't want Grandma to see because she can. And our relationship with our grandparents are different than our relationship with our parents. We want them to love and respect us.

So how do we do that practically? We do that by having our kids' usernames and passwords so that we can monitor them at any time, but we don't need to. So it functions in a way like random drug testing in the workplace, which is because they can check, the kids actually behave differently.

JILL ANDERSON: I know we've been talking quite a bit about teenagers, and I'm wondering if there's an age that you recommend children get phones, or you wait as long as you can. Is there a time that you think it makes sense and when it doesn't?

MICHAEL RICH: That time is not determined in years lived so much as the time at which the child needs that device or application, is able to handle it responsibly-- this is just like driving-- and able to handle it with respect for themselves and others. One of the things I will say to parents is, if you're not ready to talk openly with your child about pornography, don't get them a smartphone because a smartphone is one click away from porn.

I think we have to be very explicit, when they ask for a phone, ask them, why do you want it? Because everybody else has one. That's not using it as a tool. That's using it as a status symbol or a way to keep up with others.

But when they think about how to use it as a tool, it's important to explicitly talk to them about what they are using it for and what they are not using it for. When, where, and how to use it, because it's not just the content but the context of use that matters. You don't get on your smartphone in church or in class, et cetera.

And be explicit about both the pros and the cons. And with them, before they get the device, decide what the consequence should be if they slip up because before they get that phone, they'll say, yeah, I should lose the phone for a day or a week or whatever. But once they have that phone, they would never agree to that. 
But the goal here is to have them share ownership of the plan, have them have some skin in the game, have them recognize that this is a responsibility that's being handed to them. It's not just freedom and fun. It is a responsibility, as many responsibilities are handed over to them during adolescence.

Now, a lot of people want an age, and a lot of people, arbitrarily quite frankly, set ages. Wait until eighth, or not till they're in high school or 16 or whatever. The problem with that is every 16-year-old, every 13-year-old is not the same. They're very different kids, and parents know those kids better than anybody. 

If you determine that your child can use it in ways that are healthy, smart, and empathetic to the rest of the world as well as themselves, then you sit down and have that conversation. What is important is to recognize not only that every kid of a certain age is not the same, but we also have neurodiversity to deal with. And I think it's really important to not make them other because neurodiversity has many, many forms, some of which are quite successful. There's some very, very successful folks with ADHD, for example. 

What we talk about is not age appropriate because we argue with both the concept of age being a determinant of how well they can use it, but we also argue with the idea of appropriateness because what's appropriate in Massachusetts may not be appropriate in Texas or Florida, and that's a values-laden, that's a socially driven concept. We talk about developmentally optimal. When is it developmentally optimal for this young person to take on this responsibility and this freedom of a phone or a social media or whatever it is, but to do that, again, in a very thoughtful, purposeful, mindful way, and in a way that you can pull back from it if they get in trouble.

JILL ANDERSON: It's interesting that you brought up some of the laws and things that are being discussed nationwide because phones and social media have taken a lot of blame for the growing issues of anxiety and depression and suicide that's happening in young people today. Correct me if I'm wrong. My understanding is there hasn't been a lot of really strong data out there that's able to draw correlations between these things, at least not yet.

MICHAEL RICH: That's very correct. I mean, there are correlations, but you can make a lot of correlations between a lot of things. That is not causation. Taking care of adolescents in particular for more than 30 years now, I will tell you that anxiety and depression are a part of adolescence. They really are. 
In fact, the normal state in adolescence would be pathological in some ways in other stages of life, the lability of their emotions. I love you, I hate you, I love you, I hate you, not just with parents, but with everybody. And that's part of how they figure out how to be in the world, how to establish their individuality and function in a society.

I also feel that it's really, really dangerous to point fingers at social media, at smartphones as causal and to talk about things like addiction to your phone. And the reason for that is that it allows the person to say, the thing did it to me. The thing is dragging my attention to it, that device, that social media platform. 
It is not social media that does stuff to us. It's how we use social media and phones that get some of us in trouble. And so I think it's really important to be thoughtful about that and to be self-aware as we use it. 
So I'm also pretty cynical, frankly, about the laws, the ability of legislation to fix this, in part because those who make our laws are kind of clueless about the digital space and the way things work. They only think about banning things. If you ban social media and smartphones, anxiety and depression and loneliness are not going to go away. It's just not going to happen.

And it's not going to happen that they'll be able to ban it anyway because the way laws happen is like whack-a-mole. They'll single one thing out, whack it down, and two other things will pop up. It lags behind what's happening in the world anyway.

We had since 1998 the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act that ostensibly said that no child should be on a site that collects data about them until the age of 13. Now, first of all there's nothing magical about being 13. The only reason they pick that date is it already been established as PG-13 in the movie rating system. 
We have to take a step back and say, what is best for us? Let's approach this as an environmental health issue. Media are like the air they breathe, and we can both work to improve the quality of the air, but also to help them breathe in ways that are allowing them to be productive and successful and happy.

JILL ANDERSON: So are there warning signs that parents should be looking out for with their children that maybe this is having some kind of negative impact on their well-being?

MICHAEL RICH: Well, let's name the this. This is the behavior that they have on these sites, not the sites doing something to them. So yes, as someone who sees kids who've kind of gone down the rabbit hole of social media or gaming or online anything-- we call information bingeing, looking at endless YouTube videos, et cetera-- there are some signs. Number one is you know when your kid is more focused on their phone than on you. You pick that right up.

But what ends up happening is they stop prioritizing things like family dinners. They have to be argued with to get them off the screen to come to dinner. They stay up late at night, sometimes all night long, or even kids who wait till their parents are asleep and then get online. There are various behaviors that are really noticeable.

They withdraw from family and friends. They get less sleep. They do less well in school or whatever activity they're involved with in the summer. And I think these are the earliest signs, or we should respond to the earliest signs and redirect because the deeper they get into it, the harder it gets to pull them out.

JILL ANDERSON: I just wondered if you had any other final thoughts that you would want to share with parents.

MICHAEL RICH: I think there's nothing special about summer except more free time. And so a lot of these strategies are ones that we should be applying any time of year in the sense that if we can all-- and I'm including the parents in this-- if we can all find another default behavior then turning to the phone. I think we've all fallen into that abyss right that the phone is what we go to when we can't think of anything else. But be a little bit more thoughtful, a little bit more creative.

So I think that whenever parents hear this, I think that we just have to look at all of these devices as the powerful tools that they are. Are they being used in ways that help us all, but particularly our children, be smarter, be healthier, be kinder to each other? And if they are not, then let's find activities that are more in that direction because that's ultimately what we want our children to grow up to is happiness, productiveness, et cetera. And I think that what we really need to do here is understand the power, positive and negative power of these devices, and use them in ways that implement or operationalize that power to advance their child.

And there are two more M's that are the treat at the end of this. One is mastery of the media. Ultimately, mastery is using it effectively and turning it off when it's not the best tool for the job. 
And perhaps the best one, memories, make memories. You do not make memories of the games you played or the shows you watched. You make memories of the time you tossed a ball around the backyard or went for a walk or tried to make spaghetti and blew up the sauce all over the kitchen. These are the things of human life that sustain us, that bring us closer together.

And one of the real problems with social media is that we have traded away deep and meaningful and sustained connectedness for near-infinite connectivity. And in fact, the connections on social media or interactive media of any kind are significantly attenuated or weakened in comparison to our face-to-face interactions. And we have fallen into using these devices to come between us rather than connect us. 

JILL ANDERSON: Michael Rich is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Digital Wellness Lab and the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital. He is the author of The Mediatrician's Guide: A Joyful Approach To Raising Healthy, Smart, Kind Kids in a Screen-Saturated World. I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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