What Kids Need Part 2: To Be Unplugged


How many arguments have you had about screens in the past week? For us, it’s been three…or maybe more. It’s hard to decide what meets the criteria for “argument” since we’ve discussed them so many times and none of the discussions have been particularly heartwarming or enjoyable. 

In the context of screens, we’ve been accused by our kids of being mean and untrusting. I’ve complained to my husband that he didn’t set up concrete enough rules before giving our son his old laptop to use for school and other undefined endeavors. He’s reminded me (rightfully) that I use too many words and try too often to solve problems in the moment when emotions are too high. Raising my hand as guilty of that…over and over. And he graciously fessed up that the laptop handoff was hasty. 

Five Problems in One

In my therapy practice, I’ve often said that when something difficult happens with your child – for example, they get in trouble in class for using a bad word – it’s at least five problems, not one. That’s one reason why it’s so hard. 

If my child uses a bad word at school and gets in trouble, here are the problems/worrying thoughts evoked immediately:

  1. He broke a rule. 
  2. Why did he do this?
  3. Did I teach him that rule well enough? Did I enforce this rule at home well enough? Teaching and enforcing are actually very different parental tasks.
  4. Do I follow that rule well enough? Do I model well or yell “Sh*t!” every time I stub my toe?
  5. Will he always struggle with this, and this is just the beginning?

To name a few. These questions are not always conscious. Sometimes one parent worries about a few of them and another parent worries about the others. Some concerns feel more fleeting while others cause deeper fear. 

This is how screens are. They create so many complex issues in families, especially in the last decade and since the pandemic started. They create a complicated, multi-layered situation to navigate without a clear “just do ____” (insert perfect answer that applies to every child in every family). 

Instead, we find ourselves asking, Is this too much screen time? Is this bad for them? Am I doing this right? 

And of course, screens can also be GREAT! They have kept us connected to coworkers and family members who are states away. They can create wonderful relationships, spur creativity, and solve problems. During this year of physical separation, they’ve allowed kids to continue to go to school and connect in real yet distanced ways. 

At our house, electronics have helped my kids maintain friendships and practice social skills. (Thank you FaceTime.) They have led to cool science experiments and helped with social studies projects. (Thank you YouTube.) They have fostered teamwork, problem-solving, and perseverance. (Thank you Xbox.) 

What is the answer then? What do kids need most when it comes to screens? 

They Need Time Away

They need time away – not taking them away permanently, but time away. Time away from arguing, time away from counting the minutes until they can use them again, and time away that is fun and well spent. 

This summer, they need camp. They need social relationships without eye strain, solving problems without creating new ones, and fun without addictive mechanisms built in by media companies (see “The Social Dilemma” for specific examples). 

When physically and literally getting away isn’t possible, kids need concrete and tangible boundaries. They need accountability. They need structure. They need rules. 

What should those exact rules be, you ask? I can’t answer that for you because all of our kids and families are so different. What I can say is that I personally parent better in this area when I am less stressed and less tired and willing to actually do what I say I’m going to do. 

Being well-rested and able to think clearly helps me be proactive and put in the work that it takes to create a system and hold others accountable to that system. Then, when I’m actually using a system I made, I can evaluate whether it works or not. 

“Stressed and tired me” just wants to say yes to more screen time so I can postpone the inevitable debate and have a blessed moment to myself…in the short-term, this is highly effective, but the positive effects dissipate quickly. 

Fast Minutes 

Another thing that’s so difficult about screens is that normal rules don’t apply. For my kids, though they are mindful and intentional and genuinely trying to balance screens with other activities, they can’t resist the bad habits we’re all prone to. 

My son would pledge a million dollars and promise me he’s not lying, but his estimation of how long he played Pokemon Sword today was wrong. He’s off by at least an hour because time doesn’t feel the same. After finishing her virtual schoolwork and before I’m done working, my daughter cannot tell me if she’s watched 2, 3, or 4 episodes of Elena of Avalor. She doesn’t know. They all blur together. 

As someone who tends to run late, I would often tell my kids we were leaving in “one minute.” At that time, I’d want them to get shoes on and gather their things so they’re ready to walk out the door. However, one minute literally meant anywhere from 1 to 8 minutes. My son finally started responding by asking, “a short minute or a long minute, mom?” Time is like this. A minute is quick when a fun playdate is ending. It’s long when you’re waiting in line. 

All time on screens is fast. They are quick minutes. They are short hours. As adults, we can barely manage and navigate our own screen time effectively. On Sunday mornings, when my iPhone reports my usage, I guess incorrectly about whether my screen time has dramatically increased or decreased. Every week. I have no idea. It frustrates and freaks me out each time. 

In the summer, my kids will go to camp. And amidst my various director tasks and duties, I will cry happy tears when I see them from across the park. Because I know they’ll be engaged, they’ll be happy, and they’ll be away from their screens. And I’ll be far away – at least for 6-8 hours per day – from my agonizing parenting questions above. Am I doing this right? For those camp hours, the answer is yes. 

In the meantime (aka springtime), we’re adjusting iPad settings to limit screen time. We’re tracking usage data on laptops. We’re creating schedules then recreating them when they don’t work. We’re arguing and having “talks on the stairs” about big feelings and tricky pandemics. 

In about two months, we’ll finally make it to the summer, and it will feel so good. And those summer minutes will be quick, the good kind of quick.


Dr. Kelly Jones
Executive Director, Outpost Summer Camps
“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” Brené Brown

(This is part two of a three-part series about what kids need most this summer.)


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