Five Ways to Break Your Kids’ Screen Addiction (and Yours, Too)

Dan Tynan
May 12, 2014

We’d just crested the ridge at 6,000 feet when I decided to find a nice soft spot to lie down and die. I thought I might just sleep until the snow arrived and turned me into a Popsicle. But I had my 15-year-old daughter with me, and one of us had to act like the adult.


This was our annual “unplugging” trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, and it wasn’t going so well. As usual, my 17-year-old son had charged up the trail and was already at the lodge sipping hot cocoa. We hadn’t seen my wife for over an hour; she was hiking to the beat of a different drummer. But dad and daughter were feeling the full weight of the seven-mile, 4,000-foot ascent.

Then the phone inside my backpack bleeped. A text message had managed to find me in the middle of nowhere. It was from my wife: “Where r u guys?” 

Every year we make a pilgrimage to LeConte Lodge, a dozen cabins at the top of the Smokies accessible only by foot, with no electricity, no Internet, and — theoretically, at least — no cell coverage. (Technically, if you stand in precisely the right spot near the bathrooms you can send and receive texts. That’s where she was when she sent her message.)

The idea was to separate ourselves from technology for at least 24 hours. When we first did this four or five years ago it was relatively easy. Now, not so much. Wireless networks have gotten so powerful that we got 4G coverage more than halfway up the mountain. And we’ve become so dependent on our phones for music, entertainment, maps, and more that none of us could bear to leave our handsets behind.

We did finally manage to unplug, however … when our batteries ran out.

Plug ugly
We’re not the only parents concerned about our collective obsession with technology. You were probably too busy looking at your phone to notice, but last week was “Screen-Free Week.” The campaign, which has been running in one form or another since the early 1990s, encourages kids to rediscover fun things to do that don’t involve electronics, says Josh Golin, director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood that oversees it.

Last month, spoken word artist Gary Turk posted a five-minute video to YouTube titled “Look Up” that urged us to stop tapping on our devices and start talking to one another.

That video is a bit preachy for my tastes, but it has struck a chord: It has been watched more than 32 million times.

An excess of screen time has been blamed for a rogue’s gallery of childhood ills, including insomnia, attention disorders, a failure to make real-world social connections, and a childhood obesity epidemic. More than a third of Americans under the age of 19 are seriously overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least part of that may be caused by too many pixels and not enough physical activity.

Tune out, turn off
What can you do about it? I’ve talked with dozens of parents about this, and while there’s no magic formula, it really boils down to a few simple rules:

1. Create a contract. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s a good idea to sit down with your kids and collaborate on guidelines for when and how they’re allowed to use their devices. Write them down so there’s no dispute later over what they agreed to.

(Many parents bristle at the notion of negotiating anything with their children. If the “my way or the highway” approach works for you, fantastic. I think kids are more likely to follow the rules if they have a say in creating them, and are also more likely to become responsible adults. But ask me in 10 years and I’ll let you know how this has worked out.)

2. Establish tech-free zones. A popular tactic is to set times or spaces where technology is verboten (that also includes you, by the way). Meals are a typical time to ask everyone to check their phones at the door; many parents forbid technology after a certain hour or in kids’ bedrooms; and some plan gadget-free trips and other activities.

You will probably need some kind of monitoring system on your home network to help enforce these rules. You’ll also want to get familiar with the devices your kids use most. The iPad, Kindle, and Xbox all have rudimentary parental controls built in, while AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon let you set time restrictions and put other limits on their phones for a small monthly fee.

3. Choose your screens carefully. Measuring screen time alone is missing the point. There’s a big difference between spending two hours building cool stuff in Minecraft and spending two hours decimating zombies in Dead Rising. I think my son spends too much time watching YouTube videos, but actually many of them are about science or history. It’s not a substitute for playing football, but it’s not a total brain-melting waste either.


The biggest offender, by the way, is not the computer, console, or phone. Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital concluded that the worst contributor to childhood obesity is the TV. Why? Kids are bombarded with ads for fast food and sugar-saturated drinks. And, worse, their hands are free to stuff this junk down their gullets.

4. Get active. What does a kid do when there’s no screen to turn to? What you used to do when you were a kid: Break out the board games, ride bikes, play hopscotch. There was a period in third grade when my daughter was obsessed with knitting and got all of her friends obsessed, too. That worked fine.

There are also dozens of Xbox, PlayStation, and Wii games that allow kids to exercise more than just their thumbs, using the consoles’ cameras and motion detectors. These games are also easier for most adults to play along with. It’s still technically screen time, but it’s social and physically active screen time.

5. Heal thyself. Want to see someone who probably spends too much time staring into the electronic void? Look at the reflection in your monitor. Or smartphone. Or tablet. If you’re not dealing with your addiction to pixels, how can you ask your kids to deal with theirs?

Awareness of this problem has given rise to a new phenomenon: unplugging camps for adults, where overly wired professionals free themselves from the shackles of technology. There are dozens of these; one of the better known is Digital Detox’s Camp Grounded in Anderson Valley, California. This June, for a little more than $500, you can spend four days taking workshops in archery, dance, tai chi, and fire making, among other things. You’re not allowed to tweet about any of it.

“The rules at camp are taken seriously,” says founder and camp director Levi Felix. “No digital technology, no work talk, and no networking. The focus isn’t on disconnecting from devices as much as it is about reconnecting to the things that really matter in life.”

Here’s what adults get up to when they’re not glued to their devices. And, yes, there are still slots available for this summer’s sessions. (Fertl/Vimeo

Modern phone age families
If you are feeling the urge to toss your kids’ smartphones into the trash, there are two more things to keep in mind. First, this is not a new problem. My parents’ biggest complaint was that TV rotted kids’ brains. Their parents probably worried about an excess of talking pictures. Go far back enough; I bet we’d discover Fred and Wilma were concerned that Pebbles was spending too much time in front of cave paintings. Most of us survived just fine.

The second thing to remember is that we have to prepare our kids for the world they will inherit, not the one we grew up in. Barring some kind of technology apocalypse, nearly everything they read, do, or say as adults is going to be delivered digitally.

In other words, they will be spending even more time in front of screens. One of our jobs as parents is to make sure they don’t spend all their time in front of them. Another is to make sure that the unavoidable time they do spend with technology is spent well and wisely.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at