Unplug your kids: Get them off the electronics and playing outdoors

Parents today struggle to balance the benefits of modern technology with the risks. Children seem to be spending less and less time outdoors and more time interacting with their screens. Because online activities are so exciting it can be difficult to pull kids away for healthier activities. Below are some tips to help your children put down that iPad and get out and enjoy real life.


Cartoon with check mark

  • start with fun
  • set limits on technology use
  • arrange your environment for success
  • monitor your family’s progress
  • model a healthy lifestyle

Cartoon with x mark

  • use technology as a reward
  • try and do this alone
  • nag or criticize
  • underestimate the risks of excessive technology use
  • expect a quick fix

Ann H. Steel, MD, MA, LMHC‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do start with fun

It can be more fun to add new activities into your children’s lives than limiting or taking away their technology. Often kids view their screens as the most pleasurable activity in their life so we should start by offering healthy yet enticing options. Make a family event of brainstorming and come up with a list for everyone of activities they previously enjoyed or have always wanted to try. Research unusual hobbies together and take advantage of wildlife organizations, zoos, aquariums, or nature foundations in your area. Filling the day with stimulating activities before we even limit technology means there is even less time available for sitting at a screen indoors.

Do set limits on technology use

Advice from the experts is very consistent; allow age-appropriate media content and limit the time spent with entertainment technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommend limiting the amount of total entertainment screen time for all children to less than one to two hours per day. Entertainment screen time or technology includes anything involving a screen that is not specifically related to work or academics. This includes computers, laptops, handheld devices, iPods, TV sets, console video games, online gaming, streaming videos, general reading or surfing, and social networking. Investigate software monitoring and blocking. Discuss the new rules in a positive way at a family meeting.

Do arrange your environment for success

It is easier to avoid junk food if you can’t find it in the cupboards. And you can set up your home and yard to be more friendly for non-tech activities. Take all screens out of kid’s bedrooms and have a central place where everyone’s cell phones sleep at night. Keep televisions and video game consoles out of sight and make family meals and conversations tech-free. Put fun exercise equipment in easy-to-access places in the garage or yard. Provide as much equipment for outdoor games and sports as you can afford. Allow kids access to tools to build their own games, ramps, mazes, tree house, or fort. Look into getting pets or urban chickens or try your hand at gardening. With a rich outdoor environment, and limited technology indoors, your children can re-discover the true joys of childhood.

Do monitor your family’s progress

Setting a goal, monitoring progress, and rewarding accomplishments will help your kids succeed. Losing ten pounds, identifying five new birds, hiking to a favorite lake, or learning a new hip hop move are all examples of healthy goals. You can use star charts, calendars, or apps and websites to track progress or connect with others working towards the same goals. Rewards should be parent-approved but fun for the child, and getting the whole family involved will foster a great sense of connection.

Do model a healthy lifestyle

We can’t expect kids to live an active, balanced life if parents don’t model these healthy behaviors. It can be eye-opening to track your own computer or cell phone use. How many hours per day are you engaged in non-work related technology time? Have you thought about cutting down? Do you find that despite all the modern technological conveniences you feel more stressed than ever? Model a lifestyle that has a healthy balance of quality family time, work, hobbies, exercise, relaxation, exposure to nature and community, or spiritual involvement. This is a great way to care for yourself and your children as well.

Ann H. Steel, MD, MA, LMHC‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not use technology as a reward

It is very common for parents to use computer time or video game play as the reward for doing homework, or as a bribe for doing undesirable activities such as chores. Unfortunately, because the internet can be so pleasurable this may actually activate the same pleasure and reward centers in the brain that are involved in addictions. Parenting experts warn against rewarding kids for doing their expected jobs (such as homework and chores) with candy or cash, and the same reasoning applies to media and entertainment technology. Every family should establish clear rules about technology use that are fair, consistent, and in line with their values. These could include a rule that all non-school and non-work use of the computer for every family member happens when the important parts of our day are completed, including exercise and outdoor play. That will help you avoid statements such as “If you do your homework you can have two hours of video game time.” Developing this new pattern will help your children improve their own internal desire to be productive which increases their self esteem. It may also reduce the association between pleasure and entertainment technology use and allow them to find passion in other activities.

Do not try and do this alone

Online gaming, social media, and internet time can be very alluring to children. Suggesting healthier, outdoor activities may be met with resistance such as complaints that parents just don’t understand the younger generation, or even anger. Definitely enlist help. The most important step is that all parent figures in the home be on the same page. Parent conflict over technology use is one of the main reasons this new plan can fail. Try to find common ground on which you can agree. Then use the “village” approach. Talk to your relatives, neighbors, friends, church, or PTA about the problem of getting kids outdoors. Brainstorm with community groups, clubs, coaches, and parks departments about programs that foster healthy activities. One of the most successful group approaches can be talking with the parents of your children’s friends. If your child’s peers are involved in healthy activities they will be more likely to go along. Don’t be afraid to share the challenges you are experiencing in your own family. Collaborate with like-minded parents to plan get-togethers that are tech-free. Using this community approach should greatly improve your success.

Do not nag or criticize

We love our children and want the best for them, and when they don’t make healthy choices in life it can be very frustrating. Often parents get into a cycle of repeating advice “Sitting all day at a computer isn’t good for your health, you really need to get outside more.” If you have nagged them in the past, your kids are very aware of your feelings on the subject. Continued advice, nagging or criticism will only increase the conflict between you which is stressful for everyone. Instead, express empathy and focus on what they are doing that is positive. “I know how difficult it is to spend less time with the video game you love. I am so proud of you for walking the dog this week.” Changing the pattern of your interactions can be difficult, but over time this empathetic, positive approach will help your child trust you and ultimately lead to a happier, more collaborative family life.

Do not underestimate the risks of excessive technology use

In order to motivate children to get outside or exercise it is helpful to fully understand the risks of not making these changes. Most technology use is sedentary and this lifestyle is linked to obesity and cardiovascular problems. In addition, over three hours per day of entertainment screen time is considered excessive, and is associated with depression, anxiety, social phobias, poor school performance, and sleep changes. Unfortunately, at least eight percent of American children may truly be addicted to their online activities.

Do not expect a quick fix

Change takes time. If your family has not had rules about screen media, or has not made an effort to get the kids involved outside in nature or other healthy activities, try to remember that this is a long-term project. Behavior experts know that it can take two months or more for new habits to become automatic. For kids who have spent most of their day with technology or who have lost interest in other hobbies, many families find it takes four or more months for the child to become engaged in the new lifestyle. But healthy kids are worth the effort!


Children today are increasingly spending time indoors with electronic devices and spending less time in nature or healthy, active pursuits. Parents face a big challenge motivating kids to reduce time with the online world. But if you start with adding in fun, then follow the expert recommendations on technology use, enlist help and reward accomplishments, the whole family can rediscover excitement in the outside world.

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