If you’re going to limit screen time, you need to invest in down time.

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A few weeks ago, I had a chat with Jordan Shapiro, researcher and author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, about screen time limits, and he brought up an important point. If parents are going to make an effort to limit their kid’s screen time, what are they going to do about their down time?

As a society, we value busy-ness. This is seen in everything from our kids’ lives to our own work lives, whether it’s the long list of after school activities or the satisfaction we get for perfect work attendance and rolling over our vacation days. There’s nothing wrong with keeping busy, so long as it doesn’t devalue the need for soft fascination activities, or relaxing hobbies and activities that take very little brain effort.

For many kids, playing video games and engaging in other online activities acts as their soft fascination. Think scrolling through TikTok, or beating up Kirby in Super Smash Brothers. So, when parents decide to limit them, or take those things away, they need to offer up other ideas.

It’s easy for parents to just flip a switch and tell kids to go find something else to do. “Boredom is good for you!” my parents used to say. And in some ways, that’s true. It’s good for kids to not have everything served up to them on a silver platter.

But it’s also important for them to have the means to create, think, play, imagine, and rest during that down time you so desperately want them to have. And they need to see that you actually value you. That it’s not just about them getting less screen time. It’s about them getting down time.

So what does this mean for parents? First, make sure you’ve got ways to engage them outside of screens. Craft supplies, books, drawing supplies, bikes, rollerblades… you get the idea. There’s a good chance that if their soft fascination has been video games and online activities for awhile, they’re not going to have the things that help support offline activities.

And second, make sure you actually support down time. They need to know that you’re cool with them just sitting around with a book, or making a mess while painting or taking a walk around the neighborhood blasting their music. And they need to see you doing it too.

We can get so focused on the wiles of screen time that we forget our kids need to understand the value of the inverse. That hobbies and quiet time and soft fascination are important for them too, and not a punishment for too much online activity.

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