Summer Screen-Time an Opportunity to Connect

I remember it like it was yesterday.  

The dread of mid-May.  

The rush to register my kids for summer activities.  The classes and camps that my kid would reject after a week of attendance only to head straight back to the screen.  My children are grown now,  and I realize that I never got it all right. Summer and screens were tough! Sometimes, I would let them game all day, while other days guilt and doubt would consume me.  How did every other parent on my Facebook feed seem to have screen free time with their kids?  I admit, I resorted to expensive bribes and empty threats. I convinced myself that I would make it “right.” I would set screen time limits and monitor their use: we would have the perfect summer. Needless to say, tension grew in my house. The parents vs the gamers became a power struggle that I wanted desperately to leave.

One day it all changed.  My son who was 13 at the time gave me important insight: he asked me to evaluate my double standards and inconsistencies, and challenged my belief that his online world was limiting.  

“Do you understand that when you call me for dinner and I have to leave my online game it is like taking me off the soccer field in the middle of a game?  I let my friends down and am banned from the next game.”  

Once I was able to lean in, I realized I had been looking right past him and all that he gained from online connections. I saw that his world was larger than I realized and was filled with people and ideas beyond my wildest imagination. He was learning to self-advocate and regulate, and to be a compassionate, successful human being; he was just doing it online.  

When I embraced curiosity, everything opened.  I’ll admit I feigned interest initially but once I learned more about his vast online world, the depth of conversation shifted and an authentic connection grew along with my mindset.  

I learned that not all screen time is the same.  Our kids use their devices for everything: getting support, relaxing, building relationships and more. Some content may seem advanced for them, but my fear does not stop their curiosity. We have the opportunity to move from manager to consultant. I learned that their online life is “just life” to them.  It is a place they can gather in Discord to talk, to be themselves, to compete in a game, and to form a community.

I co-founded My Digital TAT2 as a result of these learnings.  A place where we can have digital dialogues and listen to youth. Here are some strategies I have learned along the way. I hope to help families think about ways to view summer screen time and to develop shared values in this new frontier.

  • Supervision not “Snoopervision” - We must keep kids safe but we also must remember every adolescent needs privacy to thrive. Respecting boundaries is critical to healthy development. Resist the urge to comment on appearance and avoid making disparaging comments regarding their friends’ or influencers’ content.  If you are truly worried about your child’s digital use, schedule a time to discuss your values and concerns as a family.  Nobody wants to be interrupted, and we communicate better when we are not overwhelmed.
  • Going Old School - The summer is the perfect time to allow our brain to adopt new habits and rework our relationships with devices. Go to the park, navigate with a paper map, invite another family to join a group game, or head out on a hike. Think of analog possibilities: use a manual camera or move from strategy gaming to chess or other board games. Some of our best insights and ideas come when we have quiet and are away from the stimulation of our device.
  • Mindful Family Use - In my family, laughing broke through tension. For example, I would yell “close the cursing door and open the love window” when an intense game chat made me feel uncomfortable. Summer is a great time to reflect and assess how your family uses screen time. Remember that your child is not necessarily online more often, you just may be more aware of it because they are around. Make it fun (and build awareness) with screen time competitions and compare hours at the end of the week. Consider using an app that limits screen time to prevent the endless scroll. Once we see where we spend our time, we can control the device rather than it controlling us (yes, that includes adults).  
  • Creating Sacred Family Spaces - Whether it is the kitchen table or a common area, creating “device-free zones” are important to family function and communication. Plan together as a family where those spots will be for summer hours. Remember that your kids want your attention as much as you want theirs: accountability can go both ways.  Other ideas for opening space include unsubscribing, switching to airplane mode and storing your device out of sight. You might even challenge yourself to stay off your device until an hour after you wake up. Encourage selfies in the beginning of an event to avoid disruptions once everyone is engaged in the activity. Remember, family fun works best when everyone has a turn to choose the activity - everyone engages more when they are given agency.
  • If you can Name It, Tame It - Even though online interactions happen behind a screen, emotions are real. Resist the urge to tell your kids that they need to shake it off or log off. Help them identify the feeling and a plan of action. Do they need to explore a new friend group?  Find ways to help them stand up for themselves and others: if they spend too much time in places that make them feel badly, help them find communities on and offline where they can thrive.  There is something for everyone on the internet.

Written by

Dr. Erica Pelavin LCSW, PHD

Erica is co-founder of My Digital TAT2. MDT2 facilitates conversations that inspire safe, ethical, and conscious digital use by educating people about their power and responsibility in our connected world. Working from a strength-based perspective, Erica has worked with over 35,000 young people as well as their parents, teachers and healthcare providers. She also partners with corporations and high education institutions such as Google, Facebook, Kaiser, Stanford and Wharton School or Business. She specializes in bullying prevention, relational aggression, digital drama and conflict resolution.