Summer: The Perfect Time for a Digital Detox

Set your child on a real summer of fun and relaxation by canceling the empty hours of screen time
By Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe
July 10, 2021 Updated: July 11, 2021

“My kids have already watched three hours of TV today and it is only 9:30 in the morning.”

“It’s lunchtime and my tween daughter is still in her PJs. She has been glued to social media since she got out of bed—no, since she woke up and before she even got out of bed.”

“My teen son was up till the wee hours of the morning playing video games—in fact, I’m not sure he even went to sleep!”

Summer has started and parents are already struggling with screens. It seems that the minute those school backpacks are put away and virtual classrooms are shut down, video games and smartphones come out to play. Families have a long summer ahead of them if they don’t get their screen limits figured out now. As tempting as it may be to indulge, summer is the perfect time for a digital detox and a bad season to depend on screen entertainment.

Why is summer such a challenge?

The simple answer is the lack of schedule and large quantities of downtime.

The school year is challenging because kids often genuinely need to be on screens for their classes, especially this past year when many schools used remote learning or limited the number of children on their campuses. During the school year, kids reach their recommended screen limits quickly, and between scheduled activities, evening chores, and homework, they stay busy.

But summer has its own set of challenges. Unless they’re signed up for back-to-back camps, play dates, and vacations for almost three full months, most kids have a lot less structure to their time than they do from August to May. Friends may be less available due to their own vacations and camp schedules, most moms and dads are still working as usual, and screens are the cheapest babysitter around.

Additionally, parents tend to think of summer as necessary downtime for kids who might feel rushed and overscheduled during the year. And this isn’t wrong. Kids need free time to explore new interests, daydream, read, create art, and exercise their imaginations.

Where parents go wrong is in the mistaken belief that screen time is a legitimate form of relaxation. It simply isn’t. 

As an adult, you may have noticed this paradox in your own life. You “take a break” from work to scroll Instagram or look at Facebook. But after 10 minutes (or 30, or 60), you go back to your tasks feeling even more harried and stressed than you did before those moments of “relaxation.” This is because screens stimulate us, especially when they’re interactive and especially with the additional social pressure we encounter on social media.

All too often, kids’ “relaxing” time on their devices is a source of stress from FOMO (fear of missing out), bullying, or simply game addiction. After a while, no amount of time on the screen feels like enough, and screen battles arise in our homes.

Parents should keep in mind that they can either “pay now or pay later” this summer when it comes to cracking down on screen time. Imposing limits at the start of summer might cause some short-lived whining and resistance. But the start of the school year, when kids must put their screens away to attend class and play sports, will be much easier.

Summer is the time of year when kids are on screens the most, but need them the least. Screens might be legitimate tools during school, but they shouldn’t be treated as toys all summer long. Video games and social media qualify as toxic for kids.

So how can you go about making positive changes in your kids’ summer screen time?

How To: The Summer Digital Detox

Fire the TV babysitter.

This is easier than you think. Make a point to only watch TV on purpose this summer. This means that you don’t leave it on in the background all day, and never start the day with a TV activity. How you spend the first hour in the morning will set the tone for the rest of the day. TV time early (or any time) will put your kids in a bad mood when the TV is turned off. My theory for this is that we all get in a bad mood when we feel like we haven’t been productive, have had a sluggish start to the day, or have wasted our time with nothing to show for it.

Stay Strong Tip: Keep the remote control in a hidden place that is hard to get so it isn’t an easy go-to activity. Make a rule that as long as the sun is out, the TV is off. Replace the TV with music. See what happens if you remove all but one TV in your home to be used for family movie night only.

Send your kid’s smartphone on vacation. 

If you are already a ScreenStrong family (and have committed to limited screen use), chances are that your kids don’t have smartphones. If your kids still have smartphones and social media, summer is the perfect time to hit the pause button—and we can help you do just that. With little ones this will be easy. If you have teens, you can replace their smartphone with a talk/text-only phone for the summer or even for the next school year. This could be the best parenting decision you ever make! Summer is the perfect time for a digital detox but your kids will not be able to do it alone—they need your help.

Stay Strong Tip: Everything is more fun with a friend, so gather a few friends to do a summer digital detox with you. Make it a competition challenge and see how long they go.

Hide the video game consoles.

If gaming equipment is visible in your house, your kids won’t be able to resist it. One dad told me that he packed up his son’s gaming gear and put it in the trunk of his car for the summer. (Just remember to hide the car keys, too!) Removing access is the first step in prevention for all addictions. Get your kids outside for real games instead.

Stay Strong Tip: Sell your video game equipment and let your kids use the money to purchase something at a sports store or other hobby store.

Trash the tablets (or donate them, or hide them in the attic).

I believe that tablets are the biggest screen villains in the lives of our young kids. Parents think their kids are learning on them, and these screens are small, quiet, and easy to hide. Many parents give young kids tablets before they give them phones, not realizing that these days, tablets are just huge smartphones. We would never give our 5-year-old a smartphone, but we are giving them tablets—which are the same thing, or worse.

Kindle Fires, iPads, and other tablets are the gateway drugs for future screen addictions. Kids can use them to watch YouTube, access chat functions, and even search the open web. Tablets seem to cause the most problems in homes with young kids. They cause your kids to drown in screen activity, and much like a drowning child in water, you don’t even hear them. After raising four children, I know that when we can’t hear our kids, they are usually in trouble. It’s almost impossible to manage a tablet, especially in the summer when your kids are running in all directions.

Stay Strong Tip: Instead of a tablet, put books in your kids’ hands this summer (they are about the same size.)

Focus on real play, family connection, tech-free hobbies, and jobs. 

Summer is the perfect time to focus on what matters most and have some real-life fun. Don’t waste another minute on the empty calories of leisure screens. Kids can pour their time into a job or volunteer position at any age. They can enjoy a pet (old or new), or build a dog house, a raised garden bed, or a go-kart. Your kids can explore new ways of making art or music. They can exercise, or start a new book series. These are the things that prove to be much better investments than logged on entertainment screens. Build good habits and not screen addictions this summer.

Stay Strong Tip: Plan each day the night before (or the weekend before). Without a plan, the screen gremlins will eat up all your precious summer hours.

Don’t put the kids in charge.

If you let your kids and teens decide all of their summer activities, they will lean toward screens. Your daughters will beg for more social media time and your sons will lobby that video gaming is a hobby to be pursued. But social media will cause your daughter to be more anxious than she already is, and you will need to determine if video gaming is really a good hobby for your son. Remember, gambling is a hobby, too.

Stay Strong Tip: Let your kids have choices only for the things that will not hurt them or cause addictions.

Summer is a perfect time for a screen detox.

Transitional times like summer are good seasons to make big screen changes. Decide to start with a screen-free week and take the ScreenStrong Challenge. For seven days, you will dive into real life and your kids will get a chance to reset their brains and activities. We provide the instructions and tips to make this process successful. After that first week, you can keep going! Summer is an easy time to break the routine: plan family vacations, take trips to visit family, enjoy new experiences like summer camps. Continue your low-tech habits and when school starts again your kids will be better off. You will find it easier and easier to continue the good habits that you set this summer.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children to gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection. This article was originally published on ScreenStrong.com.

Melanie Hempe
Melanie Hempe