Managing family tech time during an uncertain summer

Joan Goodchild/Cyber Savvy Mom

I hear you out there, weary moms and dads. By now you are wrapping up several long months of trying to manage home schooling and remote learning arrangements, and summer is supposed to be your break. But in no ordinary time, will it be? 

Most of us have already loosened a lot of restrictions on time limits for device and electronics use after our kids’ typical outside activities and sports were cancelled this spring. There is only so much time busy parents, who have work requirements and homeschooling to manage, are able to dedicate to play, board games or getting outside for walks with kids. One small comfort we had to hold on to was that most kids were at least still busy for a portion of the day with school.

Now, as we move on from school distance learning programs and video classroom time into the end of school, that means finding new ways to fill time in a healthy way. 

Summer is likely to still hold a lot of uncertainties around how much freedom we have to travel and gather in groups. That means many of the traditional summer activities kids know and rely on for fun may be off the table. In many homes, the tiring dance of getting work done and keeping kids occupied will continue.

Laura Graves, professor of management in Clark University’s School of Management, researches work motivation and work-life integration. She advises families to start summer by identifying priorities for the coming months in lieu of the usual summer schedule. 

“Often summer is a time when families want to offer kids development opportunities,” said Graves. “They want to send them to camps and other activities and those may not happen. Parents may need to revisit expectations and realize this summer may not be perfect, and they may not be able to provide as many enrichment opportunities.” 

But you can provide an atmosphere that allows children to thrive and for parents to maintain sanity too, said Graves. 

Many school districts will likely have remote learning and enrichment courses that students may be interested in and can give some structure to the day. Some camps may even be held virtually if regular sessions are unable to meet. And, of course, there are the old-fashion activities we grew up with, like simply spending a day playing in the backyard. 

Whatever your kids do, it is important for parents not to put too much pressure on themselves to provide the perfect summer. 

“I know many parents are feeling overwhelmed with having kids at home,” said Graves. “There needs to be adult members of the household who work together and negotiate with their partner. There needs to be a whole family conversation about how you're going to work together and about who is going to do what.”

Graves recommends prioritizing family fun time, even if it seems tough with work looming. And don’t stress too much over how much screen time your kids are getting, because there can be lots of enriching ways to take advantage of technology for traditional summer fun. It just might look a little different.

“Think of games your family can play over Zoom with other families; like Charades or Trivial Pursuit. You may need the tech to connect but you aren’t relying on tech to have fun. As long as the game you are playing isn’t a video game, it is a meaningful activity for the family.”

In a recent New York Times column, Catherine Price, the founder of Screen/Life Balance, and the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” makes several recommendations about thoughtful use of screens.

Among her suggestions: recognize that just as there are different types of food, there are different types of screen time. Some are better for you than others. For example, reading an e-book is very different from scrolling through social media. 

“For kids, watching cartoons will feel different from participating in an interactive music class or live story time,” she writes. “There aren’t any absolute right or wrong uses of screens. The point is to start thinking of your screen time in categories, rather than as one big lump, so that you can determine what blend feels right for you and your family.”

This summer might be very different than any we have known previously, and if staying at home continues to be necessary, your kids may find themselves turning to devices more often than you would prefer. But introduce them to educational and enriching opportunities that can keep them engaged for a portion of that time each day, even if it is through a screen. 

As Price recommends, think about technology time in three buckets -- consumption, creation and connection. Ask your family to consider being mindful about dividing up time each day in each so that it’s not all spent scrolling through Tik-Tok videos. 

Instead, can your pre-teen spend some time watching a craft video and creating a project? Can your younger ones switch from video gaming to online games that help them practice math facts? Can your teenager be persuaded to swap YouTube for an interesting documentary in the TV room with you? These are all ways to continue to live safely within the confines of home without non-stop mindless consumption of media all day.

As the weather warms up, and summer arrives, give yourself permission to relax along with your kids. Recognize that electronics, for better and for worse, will continue to be part of life, but don’t beat yourself up about it if your family is turning to them a bit more these days. And, most importantly, enjoy that weather we New Englanders wait all year to bask in. Put the phones down and head outdoors whenever time allows. 

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