Rethinking screen time, and finding low tech ways to entertain kids.

If you’re a parent who allows your child daily time to use their smartphone or tablet (which is to say, most of us), the information reported in a recent 60 Minutes segment is not encouraging.

The story examined a landmark study of more than 11,000 kids to gauge the effect screen time is having on their brains. Initial brain scans from the study conclude that children who spend more than seven hours a day on screens experience premature thinning of the cortex. The report also notes that younger children who have more than two hours of screen time a day receive lower scores on tests focused on thinking and language skills.

This is just one of many research findings that indicate screen time has harmful effects. Another recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics also reported that excessive screen time is associated with various negative outcomes, including cognitive delays and poorer academic performance.

And work from Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, looked at four large, national surveys of 11 million young people over several decades. She found in the four years following 2012, the year the iPhone exploded in popularity, the percentage of teens who reported drinking or having sex fell, but the percentage who said they were lonely or depressed spiked.

Here we are, in an age of the device. In many families, they are an item as common as a couch or a television set were 20 years ago. Science seems to indicate that apparently we can’t live with ‘em, but ask any teenager and they will certainly assure you that we can’t (won’t!) live without them. What’s a worried mom or dad to do?

Take heart that not all of the research is gloom and doom. Amy Orben, a researcher at Oxford University, recently wrapped up a study that found while digital technology use does impact well-being among teens, the effect is not catastrophic. The work found technology use explains just 0.4 percent of differences in well-being. Orben says factors like adequate sleep, a supportive home life and bullying have more impact on a teen’s well-being.

Yet, with studies and science to inform us, there is little argument that device use in not risk free among kids, and they need to be used in a smart and appropriate manner.

“A generation or two ago, parents knew where the kids were,” said Jean Rogers of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and director of the Children’s Screen Time Action Network. “Now even if they are in the house, if they’re online, we don’t always know where they are going."

Rogers says a lot of her work is focused not on trying to keep kids away from devices entirely, as she knows it is not realistic. But rather than panic and judge parents, the CCFC wants to offer families tools for smart screen use.

“We like to recommend families try the one-hour rule – abstain from using technology at least one hour a day, one day a week, one week a month, and one month a year,” said Rogers

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But start with the one-hour a day challenge and build from there. You’ll likely find turning devices off for the family dinner hour will get you there. Incorporating a family movie night or a game hour are also ways to connect in a fun way that doesn’t involve everyone sitting separately staring into a tiny screen.

The CCFC is challenging everyone to unplug for a week from April 29 through May 5. Called Screen Free Week, the challenge is just as it sounds: turn off the devices and the television for a week and spend time outside, or reading a great book, or simply connecting with family and friends in ways that screens do not allow us to do. While it might be hard to remember a time when we didn’t use devices so often, you might be surprised at how much you – and your kids – will enjoy it.

“We underestimate our kids,” said Rogers. “Set something out for them to do while you’re making dinner. Pull out pots and pans, for example. It’s a great time for kids to be resourceful and entertain themselves.”

Rogers also recommends curbing excessive device use by modeling healthy use yourself. How often are you looking at your phone throughout the day? She also suggests that instead of emphasizing the effort to avoid screens, instead use a family media plan to fill your day with non-device-based activities and then see how much time is left for screens once other “low tech” activities have been accomplished.

You can find a family media plan tool on the Academy of Pediatric website.

We all know that devices are here to stay in our lives. But, as one researcher notes in the 60 Minutes segment, they should be a tool we use, not a tool that uses us. Challenge yourself to use devices in a balanced and healthy way - and your family can look to you for inspiration. Drop me a line and let me know how you spent low tech time during Screen Free Week!

Joan Goodchild, aka the Cyber Savvy Mom, is a writer and editor and mom of two living in Central Massachusetts. Have a topic you would like to see discussed? Reach her at cybersavvymom@yahoo.com. Get more advice for staying smart, secure and civil online at cybersavvymom.com.