This summer, put down the phone

How to help teens balance time on and off social media

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Summer is here, which typically means teenagers have more free time on their hands. And their hands may often be even more busy with their smartphones as they try to stay in touch with friends and fill the void normally occupied by school.

But while popular apps like Snapchat and Instagram have some benefit, mental health experts agree that in most cases human-to-human interaction is far more beneficial.

Finding a healthy balance of time spent on and off social media can be a challenge. According to 2018 study by Pew Research, 95% of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online “almost constantly.” Roughly one-third of participants said they visited Snapchat or YouTube most often.

Mental health experts recommend one to two hours of screen time a day and no more than 10 hours per week. Too much time spent on devices can take away from positive face-to-face activities, disrupt sleep and in turn disrupt mental health, and potentially hurt self-esteem.

“As kids spend more time on (social media), there is a much higher likelihood that it is going to become more detrimental than beneficial because teens are very comparative with one another,” said Dr. Sarah Davidon, research director at Mental Health Colorado, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the treatment and prevention of mental health and substance-use disorders. “It starts getting really hard on teens, who, even without social media, are not as confident with themselves at different ages in their lives.”

The good news is that summer doesn’t have to be spent in the pervasive world of technology. Balance is possible with the help of some good old-fashioned fun.

Get outside

Dr. Bruno Anthony, who specializes in psychology at Children’s Hospital Colorado, stresses the importance of putting down the phone and engaging in physical activity, whether that be hiking, playing a sport or taking a walk with friends.

“We know that there is a strong relation between obesity and screen time,” Anthony said.

Davidon, too, emphasized the link between brain and body. Physical health and activity leads to positive mental health, she said. She recommends even the simplest of outdoor activities: coloring with chalk on the sidewalk or getting a snow cone and taking a walk as a family.

“If our bodies are healthy, if we are keeping our bodies fit and well maintained through exercise, what we eat and how we sleep, then our brains are much more likely to be healthier,” Davidon said.

MORE: Finding teachable moments for young children over the summer

Research shows that being outdoors also allows kids to get a healthy dose of vitamin D from the sun, develop an appreciation for nature and learn to take risks, like climb a tree. If young people are kept in a bubble, Harvard Medical School reports, they “may not have the confidence and bravery to face life’s inevitable risks.”

Try socializing in person

Mental health experts agree that social media benefits teens by helping them connect and make plans with one another, reducing loneliness. But social media can’t replace all face-to-face interaction.

Kamala Vanderkolk, of Highlands Ranch, has hosted exchange students for the past three years. Her most recent student, a senior at ThunderRidge High School, developed what Vanderkolk explains as an addiction to communicating with others via Snapchat. The app has a feature called “streaks” that counts how many times two people message back and forth.

“She was getting too anxious about keeping the artificial thing going,” Vanderkolk said, adding that when she stopped using the app, some peers stopped talking to her.

Vanderkolk convinced her student to ease off of the app and try spending time with her friends in person. The student began engaging in other activities — exploring downtown Denver with friends, trying out new restaurants and taking drives to the mountains.

“She was kind of relieved ultimately to get that time back so she could spend time with people she cared about rather than keeping this artificial contest going,” Vanderkolk said. “She would, in general, do more things with the people who she genuinely wanted to spend time with.”

Anthony encourages teens to get out of the house and go to the movies or the mall with others. “You want to limit as much as you can those kinds of sedentary activities and encourage interactions,” he said.

Remember it’s OK to be bored

Summer can bring added stress to parents, who may feel like they have to plan a list of activities for the days and hours their children would otherwise be in school.

Davidon reminds those parents that it’s OK for children and teens to be bored, with no activity or screen.

“It’s great to spend time with your kids but that doesn’t mean you have to plan something every moment of the day,” Davidon said. “It can mean you just take a walk or go catch butterflies.”

Boredom is healthy, Davidon said, as it is a chance for young people to be “inventive.”

“They might kick and scream but that’s OK,” Davidon said. “Parents aren’t bad parents if their kids are bored.”

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