How to entice older kids away from screens

Today’s post is from Bron from the great new site Mumlyfe, which is a parenting site for mums of older kids. I have known Bron for many years and she has a fabulous philosophy on parenting and family life.

Bron has just published a super useful e-book Screen Freedom. It isn’t a lecture on how you should handle screens with your kids and expecting them to have no screen time. Bron knows that screens are a huge part of our kids lives, but also knows that kids need guidance and help to manage their screen time and I can highly recommend her e-book if you are looking for ideas to encourage the kids to spend more time off their screens – especially during school holidays!

There’s a bit of hysteria developing out there around “gaming addiction” and kids playing Fortnite. I use quote marks around “gaming addiction” because despite WHO recently classifying gaming disorder as a mental disease, many experts and scholars don’t agree that gaming addiction is a thing.

They clearly haven’t spoken to many parents. Anecdotally, more and more of us are realising that our kids would rather be playing video games, or watching YouTube videos at the expense of everything else. Today’s online world is entirely immersive for our children and it’s all too easy for them to get sucked into the vortex.

Life on a screen

The thing is, whether you think your child has a problem or not, it’s always a good idea to limit the amount of time kids spend gaming, or generally online or on screens. The online world is an enticing, exciting place to be and the more we play there, the more real life can feel slow and dull by comparison.

Life really does take place on a screen for kids these days – they socialise there, learn there and are entertained there.  What’s ‘real world’ and ‘online world’ is so often blurred together that it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect our kids to separate the two.

What concerns me, though, is that our kids are becoming too reliant on being entertained by screens and not reliant enough on their own creativity and inventiveness. So many kids haven’t got a clue what to do with themselves away from screens and I think that points to some concerning gaps in their ongoing capabilities and sense of self-worth.

Why it’s so hard to limit screen time

There’s often a big backlash against parents from judgey types who tell us to “just limit your kids’ screen time” or “just say no”. I hate that word “just”. There is never an easy solution when we run into a parenting problem and the word “just” diminishes the immense obstacles that parents are often facing.

It takes a lot of time, ingenuity and effort to change a kid’s screen habits. The backlash is confronting and we have to be ready to battle. I offer a lot of support, comfort and advice for getting through this in my ebook, Screen Freedom – Winning strategies to get tweens and teens to switch off screens and switch on their potential. Bottom line is: it’s bloody hard work.

One thing I do know is this: most families can get back control of time spent online. Most kids can find their way back into other activities that they learn to look forward to just as much. Most families can make the changes they need to set some healthy boundaries around screen time.

How much screen time?

What those “healthy boundaries” look like will be different for each kid and each family. These days kids often have homework to complete on their computer, they communicate with friends via messaging and social media, they watch a favourite TV program… it all adds up quickly, even without gaming added to the mix.

The Department of Health recommends that tweens and teens have no more than two hours of screen time per day. Two hours a day may seem like a lot or a little to you and your child, so work together to figure out a sensible amount of time that you are both happy with.

If not screens, then what?

I’ve talked to a lot of parents of tweens and teens and I think the number one reason why kids find it so hard to stay off screen is that they don’t know what to do with themselves without them. The three hours they spend on screens every day is a lot of time to fill. They are just not used to doing other stuff anymore.

It’s not enough to set screen boundaries and tell kids to go find something else to do. Many kids haven’t had to “play” since they were really little and they actually don’t know how. Hobbies aren’t something they’ve spent a lot of time developing. Which is why I focused so heavily on “what to do when there’s nothing to do” in my ebook, offering more than 100 options. If we are going to successfully get kids off screens, we need to guide them towards other fun, entertaining, absorbing things to do instead.

Here are 5 ways to get them started:

  1. Get off screens yourself. This will always be the #1 way to get your kid off a screen. Put down your own phone, iPad, computer screen, gaming control and go do something together. Go for a walk, weed the garden, bake a cake, play a board game, ride a bike, learn some card games, visit the park – find a hobby you like to do with your kids.
  2. Have a visitor’s night. Once a month on a Monday or Wednesday or Saturday, take it in turns for each person in the family to invite some you like over for dinner. It might be a family friend, it might be your teacher or the guy who does the garden. You can ask a new neighbour or the kid you’re friendly with at soccer or your art teacher. Just cook and eat what you’d normally eat as a family, but make enough extra for your guests.
  3. Learn to sew. Or knit, or crochet, or whittle wood, or draw or paint. Using our hands is an absorbing, mindful way to pass the time in a stimulating way. Becoming a beginner at something is challenging, but so rewarding when we master new skills and become proficient at something new.
  4. Create a comic strip. You don’t need to be able to draw well or write well. If you can make marks on a page and you have a story to tell, a comic strip is a very fun way thing to be in charge of. Work on your character development and plot out your storyline before you begin. Check out some manga and old-school cartoons from the library so you have lots of knowledge to draw from. Make it a weekly serial that you share with family and friends.
  5. Become an expert in something. Deep knowledge of something you are interested in just might be the launch pad to your future career. Or at least a life-long interest. The challenge will be to become an expert without simply Googling. The library is a good place to start, but maybe you can track down some leaders in the field you are interested in and interview them too.

Bron is the editor of Mumlyfe, a parenting site for mums of older kids. She is a passionate advocate for working parents, writing extensively on life balance, common sense and strengths-based parenting and the ‘good enough’ parent. Bron has been writing lifestyle and parenting content online for over eight years, and has been an editor at Kidspot, Mumtastic and SBS. Her new eBook Screen Freedom gives parents winning strategies to get their kids to switch off screens and switch on their potential.