Balancing screen time with “green time”

It has been almost a year since the world was seemingly flipped on its head. The impact of the pandemic has made its mark in so many aspects of our lives, most notably in how we socialize and connect with our community. 

For many children around the world, their daily lives shifted from moving around a school building, to moving around websites and virtual classrooms. Socialization has moved online as well – for both parents AND children. And while we know that all of these changes are necessary in order to keep our most vulnerable safe, we must also be cognizant of the impact of this increased time online. What can we do, as the big people in the household, to ensure that there is a balance struck between screen time and “green time”?

Nurtured by nature
As humans, we are meant to exist in contact and closeness with one another. We are a social species and long for connection. We also benefit immensely from movement of our bodies and experiencing the outdoors. In fact, all of these things — connection, exercise and spending time in nature — naturally boost our immune systems. 

But for the last year, physical distancing has prevented us from taking part in some of our typical outdoor activities, our “green time” – such as organized sports, group walks, field trips, and so on. It is up to us to get creative in order to soak up this much-needed outdoor time. It can be a family hike, or even a walk around the block. Throwing the ball around in the backyard or visiting a local park to kick the soccer ball is also a great way to get moving. Younger children will find walks much more fun if you can make it a scavenger hunt or plan to do a “door drop” of a little treat on a neighbor’s front step. Spending time together outdoors is a great way to promote connection with your adolescents. Use this time to check in. Ask questions; listen fully, without interruption or judgement. These moments can be an opportunity to foster relationships, while benefiting from fresh air and a change of scenery.

Making screen time count
When it comes to managing screen time, it’s important to recognize that not all screen time is created equal. Spending time on apps that are all about connection, like Zoom and FaceTime, is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as good as the real thing, and nothing can replace face-to-face interaction, but it also doesn’t impact brain development in the same way that other screen use does. 

Educational pursuits such as Zoom classes, doing research, or writing an essay are also appropriate and useful ways to use screen time. Of course, it would be optimal to be in a classroom and/or working collaboratively with peers, but again, these screen uses are not impacting brain development in the same way that gaming and social media consumption do.

Setting boundaries
The screen time that we need to be setting boundaries around are the ones that we access for entertainment purposes: gaming, social media, and mindless video-watching/streaming. 

Gaming has the brain in a constant “scan and search” mode, which actually impacts the way the brain’s attention circuits are wired up over time.

Social media keeps our interactions at a surface level and can get in the way of us having more meaningful interactions with our peers and family. These interactions are what we crave as humans, and the watered-down version does not satiate us in the same way. Mindless video watching or streaming is not quite as “sticky” in our brains as gaming or social media consumption is, but it does pull us away from opportunities to connect.

Binge-watching a tv series gobbles up hours and can interrupt the natural flow of the day, preventing us from doing other meaningful activities, like eating dinner as a family, getting outside, and connecting with our loved ones however we can.

Finding balance
When we’re trying to find a balance, we need to remember the exchange: “green time” for screen time. When it comes to entertainment technology like gaming, and social media, have your child logging their screen time and then heading outdoors for an equal amount of outdoor play. A good goal for each family member is to move your body at least 30 minutes per day. 

It’s also important to consider appropriate limits for technology exposure by age. For example, kids who are:

  • 0-2 years, none
  • 3-5 years, 1 hour per day
  • 6+ years, 2 hours per day

Another good rule of thumb is that technology should be kept in areas of the home that are not associated with sleeping and eating. Ensure that you have “screen-free times” in your daily routine — if there is a family activity that is typically reserved for family togetherness, screens should NOT be invited along.

This is a strange time in our lives, and the reality is that screen time has become a large part of that. Kids need us to move capably to prevent too much technology from intruding into childhood. Set firm but kind boundaries and make connection your ultimate goal. And know that this too, shall pass.  

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe joined Life360 in March 2019 as a Family Expert to help further the company’s mission of keeping families safe and connected. Dr. Lapointe is an author, parenting expert, and registered psychologist.

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