Nurture social skills, confidence and creativity 

Here’s a good New Year’s resolution for your family: use less media. The overuse of media and mobile phones affects our mental health, sleep and self-esteem. It also drives us with external cues rather than internal ones. Adults might not be at as big of a risk for these woes since we already know who we are, and we have healthy habits in place to keep us centered. The same may not be as true for our kids. Being plugged-in is a natural part of our kids’ day-to-day lives, and a favorite past time, often instead of face-to-face interaction or physical activity. In our guts, we know this isn’t healthy. There’s an easy solution—limit screen time. And to make it stick, do it together as a family.

Promote creative play for healthier bodies and brains

When it comes to cutting back on media time, maybe the question isn’t so much what our kids are seeing, reading and doing that’s not healthy, but more, what are they missing out on by always being plugged in? One thing for sure is creative play, which stimulates imagination, critical thinking—and when it’s physical—strengthens our bodies.

When kids lack the chances for unstructured, imaginative play, they are less happy and well-adjusted as adults. Free play enhances how kids interact socially, solve problems and cope with stress.

“Unstructured play is hugely important. Studies on elementary kids show imaginary play is a large part of brain development. Kids who are allowed ample opportunities for unstructured play learn how to negotiate relationships outside of a structured setting. They also learn how to think critically and problem solve. With these skills, they don’t need to be entertained all the time and they are less bored and restless,” says Andrea Holt, LMFT, CAC III, Marriage and Family Therapist with UCHealth's Family Medicine Center in Fort Collins.

Foster internally driven confidence rather than external

In the preteen years especially, it’s common for kids to seek reassurance from others about who they are. It’s a time when kids try out different ways of being to figure out their own values, personality and approach to life—separate from their parents’ approach. They look outward to see how others react, to help define themselves. Doing so makes them especially vulnerable to negative feedback on social media. If they feel insecure already, they may let a negative reaction on social media define them, rather than turning inwards to define themselves.

When kids are plugged in constantly, they never get a break from a constant barrage of messages. Social media tends to set kids up to compare their lives to others, and it often makes them feel like they are not good enough, or doing enough. Taking breaks helps, so does talking about social media posts—and sharing that we don’t usually see the whole story—just what people want us to see.

“With social media, we now get a window into other people’s lives and it creates a lot of comparison and judgment. It doesn’t offer the most accurate or well-rounded representation of a person and it can be damaging to make assumptions,” Holt says.

Limit your kids’ social media accounts, especially if they are struggling socially and most definitely if they are getting bullied at school. A recent scientific survey of 2000 middle schoolers found that kids who had been victims of cyberbullying were twice as likely to attempt suicide than their counterparts. Did you know there are websites that actually advise people on how to commit suicide? It’s frightening to consider, but true. The same researchers found over 100 pro-suicide sights available on the Internet. Be aware of this as you consider your child’s media use.

Now more than ever, kids soak in messages about gender, sex, social interaction, risky behaviors, and what they should look like from media sources. Starting from when they are young, be there to interpret these messages for your kids. When watching television, make a point to question commercials that portray men as cavemen or women as sex symbols out loud, or comment on shows or online videos that portray kids and teens doing dangerous activities. If you break down media messages for what they are, they will hold less power and give you a chance to teach valuable lessons.

Nurture social skills with face-to-face interaction

We all know that kids’ brains are sponges, especially the first five years of life. New ideas, new thoughts, new experiences create new pathways. Yet, between the ages of 11 and 13, the brain goes through a “pruning stage” where it drops things that it doesn’t use repeatedly.

It’s vital at all ages, but especially in the pre-teen years, to set the stage for verbal skills, kindness and good character through social interactions. What is repeated will remain, and what’s not will fall away. Help kids grow their interpersonal skills by setting up in-person play dates with friends, device-free of course.

“Studies have shown that girls are wired to be more verbal and boys more action-oriented, and that transfers to how each develops intimacy,” says Tom Kowalski, MA, LPC, a licensed professional counselor in Fort Collins.

Tips for unplugging

Share your resolution to use less media with your kids, making it a family endeavor. In doing so, you may have to establish some new rules. Maybe it’s creating device-free zones in your house, or setting device-free times each day. Or, set the rule that media can only be used after kids have finished their daily duties of homework, chores, meals and exercise.   

The American Academy of Pediatric advises zero media time for babies up to 18 months, then just one hour until kids turn 6. From age 6 on, they now leave it up to parents to determine how much media time is healthy, stating that after school, homework, an hour of physical activity, and social interaction happens—which takes eight to 12 hours—whatever is leftover can be screen time.

Resist using media as a reward for getting homework done or for doing chores because it might backfire—as it does with food—and make kids crave it. Instead, let the reward be spending quality time together as a family.

Another idea is to take regular vacations from social media. You could literally go away but leave all devices (except cell phones) at home, making a rule that cell phones can only be used for emergencies. Or, take random 24-hour vacations from texting or social media.

Set limits around use. For example, make it a family rule that after dinner all cell phones go to the charging station, where they live until the next day. Or, ban tablets two hours before bedtime to ensure good sleep, and keep them out of bedrooms.

Go old school and hang out together without the interruption of always checking your phones. When you are actively talking or playing together, make sure to leave mobile phones and devices out of the picture. By unplugging, you can really connect.

Are mobile phones addictive?

Are you constantly checking your phone for text messages, emails and tweets? If so, it might be time to consciously pare back. Several studies summarized by the National Institutes of Health show that smartphones can be addictive, and this addiction brings with it mental health problems. One study followed 300 students for a year, determining that 21 percent were addicted, and that those addicted suffered from anxiety, insomnia, depression and stress at a higher rate than their counterparts who were not as tethered to their phones.Another study found that media overuse leads to sleep disorders and social anxiety. The solution? Put down your phone. The students with mental health issues improved once they reduced their cell phone use.