With kids and adults spending more and more time on their screens, technology is coming in the way of quality family time. Experts offer simple tips to unplug and reconnect.

By Beth Ann Mayer
October 18, 2019

Technology is expected to connect us, but new research shows it's often doing the opposite. "There are opportunities to connect and learn, but too much of a good thing causes trouble," says Jon Lasser, Ph.D., associate dean for research and sponsored programs at the College of Education at Texas State University and co-author of Tech Generation.

Kids and teens spend more than seven hours a day on their screens. And increasing screen time by even one hour annually can make a teen more depressed, according to a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics. There is less information on the link between adults' screen time and mental illness, but the limited research shows it's problematic. Estimates show U.S. adults spend more than half the day consuming media, and people over the age of 20 who spend more than six hours per day looking at a screen have a higher chance of being depressed.

These habits often also come between quality family time and many families are seeking ways to unplug. That doesn’t mean they need to ditch devices altogether. Experts say frank discussions about technology use, ground rules, and simple tactics to go device-free can help families reconnect.

Lay the Foundation to Use Tech Less

Families should discuss how technology is impacting their lives and agree on what an appropriate amount of screen time is. "We also want to seek kids' input instead of a top-down approach,'" says Dr. Lasser.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' Family Media Plan helps families discuss the importance of keeping up with tech-free activities, such as going outside. As these talks progress, families should come up with limits and write them down.

"We all can say we won't bring screens to the table, but if we write it down and hang it up, people may be more cognizant of them," says Syeda Amna Husain, M.D., FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician who runs a private practice Pure Direct Pediatrics in Marlboro, New Jersey.

How to Unplug as a Family

Once there are some agreed-upon policies in place, families can go about connecting offline. To keep everyone honest, consider leaving screens in another room or putting them in a basket before engaging in quality family time. Remember that devices talk to one another nowadays so putting a phone away does nothing if people are getting text messages on their watch. Opt to turn on the do not disturb mode on those too.

Put a Bunch of Cooks in a Kitchen

Forget hands-free, be hands-on. "Engage kids in activities that are incompatible with screen time," says Dr. Lasser. A good way to do that is by doing something with your hands. "Cooking involves listening, talking, turn-taking, negotiation, adjusting,” adds Dr. Lasser.

Keep in mind, screens have even crept into the kitchen too. "When you cook, you look up a recipe online or watch a video." Go old-school and print the recipe or use a cookbook instead.

Take a Break from TV Dinners

Allowing children to use a screen during dinner, particularly in a public place, has become an emotional pacifier, says Carla Buck, a licensed mental health therapist and founder of Warrior Brain, a website offering tools to help parents raise confident and calm children. "It creates a way for the kid to be distracted while they eat, which works well," she notes. "The other side of that is you've got a kid who is learning to mindlessly eat."

Buck suggests if screens are a crutch, start small by asking the child to go five or 10 minutes without a device as they chow down. But parents should always be gentle with themselves if their child is having an off night, especially in public, and they have to give in.

Make it a Competition

If children love a good competition, gamify using less technology. "See who can go the longest without picking up their phones," says Buck.

Board game nights are also in play for competitive families. "Sometimes, it's about stepping back and saying, 'What are the screens providing?'" says Dr. Lasser. Once a family figures that out, they can find device-free ways to satisfy those needs.

Share a Screen

Though family movie nights don't constitute as completely unplugging, there are ways to make them an interactive learning experience. "Maybe everyone votes on what the movie is," says Dr. Husain. "That's also a way to show you can't get your way all the time and have to take other people's thoughts into consideration." When it's over, shut the TV off and ask everyone their opinions. "Try 'What did you learn from this movie?'" says Dr. Husain.

Get Active

Walking boasts benefits like lowering depression and cardiovascular disease, while too much screen time is linked to weight gain. "It's a power boost for the body," says Buck. Take a hike, go to a park, or walk around the block together. But remember: Leave the phone at home, even if the sunset is gorgeous. "Enjoy it,” says Dr. Lasser. “Look at the tree, not the preview of the screen."

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