Are Smartphones Disconnecting Your Family?

ActivityHero providers are experts at getting kids to go (temporarily) off the grid. Here 6 of their tips to help your family welcome more tech-free time.

By Rachel Stamper

Tech is typically banned at school and during after school activities — and for good reason: Smartphones and tablets distract kids from instructional time. At bedtime, exposure to blue light from smartphones, tablets, computers, and the TV can actually make it tougher for kids and adults to fall asleep because the light they emit prevents the release of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. And with 20 digital devices in the average home, according to a recent Yahoo! poll, there are plenty of screens competing for your family’s attention. Left unchecked, all that screen time could affect your relationship with your children, the quantity and quality of sleep your family gets, and how engaged your kids are during the school day and at activities.

To get some help in corralling the tech, we reached out to a few ActivityHero providers who are experts on powering down kids’ smartphone usage — at least temporarily. Here, we offer their suggestions, along with our own research, to help you figure out the best times and ways to use a little less data each day.

1. Get an Old-School Alarm Clock

“Today too many people use their phones as alarms. That means it’s super-tempting to check your social media or favorite news sites right before you go to sleep,” says Ed Caballero, Executive Director of Camp Edmo, which offers high-quality enrichment programs in science, technology, reading, engineering, arts, and math. His suggestion: Leave your phone in another room to recharge at night, and use a regular alarm clock to rise in the morning. “It’s also a great to give your body a break from being close to that radiation for 6 to 10 hours a day,” he adds. A standard clock with a battery backup is just as reliable as a cell phone alarm.

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2. Schedule Some Official “Silent Times”

Caballero also says, “You might have a hard time keeping the cell phone out of your child’s hand at all times. However, you can establish Silent Times like dinner, family gatherings, etc., when the phone is set to silent. When you don’t have the angst of wondering if your phone vibrated, pinged, or rang, you can actually be more present and conversational. By turning your phones to silent, you can focus on the people you’re with and check messages at socially appropriate times — when you’re alone later.” Whether it’s dinner at home, at a restaurant, or at a special event, if everyone powers down at the same time, there’s a sense of fairness. (Yes, that means us adults, too!)

3. Reframe the Conversation

Blake Longfellow, Co-owner and Director of UCamps, which provide fun, educational, arts, leadership, and outdoor enrichment programs, allows only counselors, not kids, to have cell phones. “When I promote the summer programs, kids always ask can they have their phones,” he says. “I reframe the conversation to remind them if they don’t have their cell phones, their parents can’t tell them what to do.” Kids can make their own choices, choose their own classes, decide who they “hang out” with, and get a break from “parental communication.” Rather than focusing on what you might miss by unplugging, talk about how you’ll be able to positively experience the world without a digital distraction.

4. Don’t Break Electronics Bans

Longfellow adds, “We have a no-phone policy for campers and it’s the parents that complain — 90 percent of the kids are okay with it. Some parents will try and sneak in a phone, but having a phone can foster homesickness. In previous years, 10 or 11 kids left camp each summer due to homesickness, but since we set a phone ban, no kids have asked to leave. Kids are more present and enjoy the time without a phone.” Promise yourself now that you won’t fight phone bans at school or activities, no matter how inconvenient it may seem at first. When you set a good example, says Longfellow, “This teaches kids to respect your phone rules too.”

5. Think About Your Own Habits

Clinical psychologist Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, says that it’s not just parents who are upset about tech interruptions; it’s kids who hurt, too. “We as parents have to be much more mindful about … interacting with technology when our children need us …. Children of all ages — 2, 15, 18, 22 — used the same phrases to talk about how hard it is for them to get their parents’ attention when they need it: sad, angry, mad, frustrated.” By putting down your digital device, you model this habit for your kids. This means no checking your phone at mealtime, while in the car, or during family time. It may be a challenge at first, but imagine what a relief it will be to have some off-the-grid moments when no one can steal your serenity with a stressed-out email or text.

6. Go “Old School” in the Evenings

The blue light of devices is particularly bad in the two to three hours before bedtime. To help your kids get the right quantity and quality of sleep, consider reading paper books or playing board games in the evening rather than using eBooks or apps before bed. A recent study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed that screen activity before bed makes it harder to fall asleep. Dr. Anne-Marie Chang says, “The best recommendation (although not the most popular) would be to avoid use of light-emitting screens before bedtime.” Plus, board games improve executive function (the brain’s control of cognitive processes such as memory, reasoning, and problem-solving) and let you bond and engage with your kids. Just be sure to silence your phones first!

Give Tech-Loving Kids Another Option

If your child simply loves technology, take a look at the computer programming and coding classes available on ActivityHero! This is a great way to support your kids’ interest in electronics in a way that allows them to learn, socialize, and possibly prepare for a future career.

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Social Networking: Use It to Enrich Your Child’s Life

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Social networking is all around us and often replaces face-to-face interaction in many instances. Even small children need to live a practically isolated existence to not know what Facebook is. Rather than shield your children from internet socializing, you can use it to positively teach them about the world around them. The end result often involves a little one who properly understands the basics of internet safety, cultural awareness and proper regard for one another.

Basic Safety and Enrichment

Don’t forbid your child from using the internet. Likewise, do not give them free reign of it. Sound confusing? It can be if you are not prepared. Instead, share with your children basic internet safety protocols that can then translate into real life – don’t accept gifts from strangers, do not provide personal information to someone you don’t know (or even those you think you do), and respect the internet as a wealth of knowledge, information and fun – that does not need to be used 24/7.

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Spend computer time together with your child, allowing them to see pictures and comments from people on your Facebook account they know and love. Seeing cheerleading pictures of a favorite cousin or receiving a special message from grandma through your personal Facebook page may curb the curiosity and desire to venture into their own social networking world. And spending extra time with mom is usually a bonus too – especially with the younger kids.

Encourage Creativity

If you share space with a right-brained child, why not allow them to create videos to share in cyberspace? YouTube has a little-known guide available via their homepage on how to make an account safe for kids. If you don’t want to go through the trouble, then leave the uploading and comment moderating to the parents – kids can fulfill their music video aspirations through planning, practicing and filming – then you can reward them via uploading it and showing them encouraging comments from friends and family.

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Artwork can also be created online. Whether you use MS Paint or Photoshop, your kids can learn to use these tools and then use a personal email account to send it to friends and family. Email for kids is usually safe – but make sure you have their password so you can check on what exactly is being sent, and to make sure they aren’t receiving any spam that is inappropriate in their inbox.

Stay Connected

If your child is old enough to have a Facebook or personal YouTube page, be sure to use it to further enrich your relationship. Comment on your kid’s wall or “like” their status. They won’t be nearly as embarrassed by you as you may foresee, and it can strengthen your bond when you’re willing to enter into their cyber world.

Sites that are Safe

Today’s world, if nothing else, is very small. Kids are able to communicate with others their age living across the globe – and they should. Having pen pals in China, Africa and England has never been simpler or more instant – and there are ways for your kids to connect and share activities with these youngsters without ever needing a Facebook account!

  • Fanlala – Set up almost exactly like Myspace (remember them?), your child can blog, share photos and participate in various virtual groups. Best of all, it requires parents to verify their identity with a credit card or phone call.
  • Edmodo – classes can connect with both classmates and other schools around the world. Teachers tout it as a Facebook for the classroom, and kids who are normally shy in class will speak up in written form. It’s a great way for your child to participate and grow academically.
  • Club Penguin – created by Disney, it is fun and enriching for kids, allowing them to play games and network socially with other young children around the world.

These are just a few of the great ways for kids to be enriched and grow alongside a world that depends upon technology to function and thrive.


Written by Tamara Warta