The bill from Verizon Wireless came across as a text message. “Your bill is ready to view. Your balance $960.77 is scheduled for eCheck payment on 07/14/16.” WHAAATTT!!!! $960.77??? Last month it was $295 for our family of four. How did $960.77 happen?
Simple, I sent my 15-year-old son on a weeklong fishing vacation in the middle of nowhere Minnesota with his grandfather. They had no WiFi. While they were supposed to be communing with nature, my 15-year-old streamed YouTube videos all week long on his cellphone — 40 GB of data. He could not break the habit of being connected to his screen, even when nature’s most magnificent views were all around him.
Across the country that same week, in Arkansas my 12-year-old daughter’s Girl Scout troop was living like people in a third-world country at Heifer International Ranch. One of the seventh- and eighth-graders’ biggest challenges aside from securing food, water and firewood, was entertaining themselves without the use of cellphones. (Not surprisingly, the parent chaperones, myself included, were the biggest failures when it came to going without the phone.) The girls had to read books, play cards and make up games.
This was supposed to be our week of not being tied to the outside world. My son (and I) failed. My daughter succeeded, but couldn’t wait to get her cellphone returned to her. (My husband enjoyed a calm kid-free house and as much streaming via WiFI as he could do in one week.)
Summer is often a much slower pace than the school year, but often it’s a time when kids have more access to screens than ever. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids spend two hours or less a day staring at screens — including televisions, computers, phones and tablets — and that kids younger than 2 have no access to screens. Of course, the academy knows our kids aren’t doing that. It found that kids are spending seven hours a day on screens for entertainment purposes.
Earlier this year, Common Sense Media surveyed 1,240 parents and their children ages 12-18 about how they felt about their mobile devices. Half of the kids said they “feel addicted” to mobile devices and 59 percent of parents said their kids were addicted.
When it feels like your kids are just bouncing from one screen to another, what’s a parent to do? Here are some recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as from parenting experts we’ve talked to in the past about this issue.
First, look deep inside your own screen usage and realize you need to break-free as well. Put down the phone, especially at dinner time, while doing activities with your kids, and of course, while driving.
Set up screen-free zones. The obvious ones would be bathrooms, bedrooms and the kitchen.
Collect phones, computers, tablets at bedtime. This one is easier to do during the school year when kids are going to bed earlier, but don’t forget to do it in summer, even if they don’t go to bed as early. Plus, no screens might help them get to bed.
Establish screen time limits. Set specific hours when it is screen time and how long they can use it. Collect devices after that time. You can install apps and software that will allow you to set a timer and then shut down the device.
Establish whole-day screen breaks. Going on vacation? There’s a lot to see and do. Pack up the screens and go out and do those things.
Use screens wisely. Watch TV together as a family and talk about what you’re watching. Ignite their curiousity and have them do research on the computer about what they are passionate about. Find interactive games on devices that you can play together. Use screens for creating something like art, music or writing. Find games that encourage you to go outdoors, such as the new “Pokemon Go.”
Control the passwords. You get to control the passwords for kids phones, tablets and computers. Change them often and because you can never remember what the current password is, email yourself the passwords under a very unexciting subject matter such as “grocery list” or “taxes.” Sneaky kids won’t look for that one.
Install parental controls. Even if you have the most innocent, trustworthy kid, you need to know what your kid is sending and also receiving by text and through social media. Software like My Mobile Watchdog can help you with that.
Find alternatives to the screen that are just as compelling. Here are 10 alternatives to the screen:
1. Try out a new-to-you-pool. We came up with a guide that you can find at austin360.com. Some of our favorites are Deep Eddy, Rock’N River Family Aquatic Center and Murchison Community Swimming Pool. You’ll be screen-free and much cooler.
2. Pick up some new card games and board games. A round of “Uno”? Yes, please. Classic games like “Clue,” “Sorry” and “The Game of Life?” Hooray! Let’s test out spelling skills with “Scrabble” or math skills with the dirty word card game (has the initials B.S.) or the cleaner “Go Fish.” Just please don’t make Mom play another round of “Monopoly.”
3. Pick up new books at the library, BookPeople or Half-Priced Books. If someone has read all the Harry Potters, good news, there’s a new one — sort of — coming out July 30. Summer is also a great time to try a new series, too. We’ll have a list of suggestions on June 23, but you can also ask your local librarian or book seller for her tips. And if kids are already reading on their own, they still love to have family story time in which you or they read the books aloud for the whole family, especially if it’s by flashlight. Many libraries and bookstores also have summer reading programs that give kids rewards for reading so many books.
4. Head to a museum. This summer The Thinkery has been offering less-expensive workshops such as science and virtual reality ones: Fizz, Bang, Pop!; Exploring Explosions; Virtual Views; and Radical Realities! that are all $8 a person (instead of the typical $25-$45 per parent and child). Baby Bloomers for the younger than age 3 crowd at 9 a.m. Monday and Saturday mornings also offers musical guests or puppet theater this summer. Head to the Bullock Museum, for Storytime Mondays; Wednesday Workshops featuring art; and Discovery Fridays with science. All happen at 11 a.m. The Blanton Museum has Deeper Drives for kids 8-12 on Fridays at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and the WorkLab art laboratory from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays. Every Friday, the Texas Museum of Science & Technology has a Star Party with telescope viewings from 8-10 p.m. If these museums don’t strike your fancy, try out one you haven’t been to in a while or never before. Check out the list at Austin Museum Partnership, www.austinmuseums.org.
5. Go out and play. Find a park you haven’t tried before. Pam LeBlanc offers her list of some hidden gems, but we would also add exploring the trails behind the Austin Nature & Science Center as well as Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park and Mayfield Park (and its peacocks). Or, set up your own backyard obstacle course or cool down outside with some water toys. And because it’s hot, we’re also a fan of flashlight walks around the neighborhood.
6. Create art. Yes, you can go to a pottery painting place or a canvas painting place. You also can take a craft class. Or you can create your own family craft day or night. Bring out the crayons, markers or finger paints and make posters or paper wall murals. Make-you-own play dough or buy some. Paint old clay pots and fill them with flowers. Bring out the beads and make jewelry.
7. Go see theater. Zilker Summer Musical “Shrek: The Musical” is playing at dusk Thursdays through Sundays through Aug. 13. And it’s free. Zilker.org. Summer Stock Austin will be back with “The Addams Family,” July 22-Aug. 7; “The Steadfast Soldier,” which is written by The Biscuit Brothers, July 24-Aug. 13; and “Carnival,” Aug. 3-13. thelongcenter.org.
8. Make up your own theater. Play charades or have the kids put on a play or a talent show for you. Or nurture the comic genius with a joke-telling contest.
9. Explore nature. It’s the centennial year for the National Parks Service. Explore a national park close to home, including the newest one at Waco Mammoth National Monument. Or if you haven’t yet been to one of our local caves, give yourself that cool treat. Inner Space Cavern in Georgetown is celebrating 50 years this year.
10. Be one with animals. Check out the new Texas Reptile Zoo in Bastrop, explore the kitsch of the Animal World & Snake Farm Zoo in New Braunfels, or go on a safari of Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, and the closeness of the Austin Zoo and the Capital of Texas Zoo. You also can see the animals at the Austin Nature & Science Center.