A report by the media watchdog Ofcom found that the time children between eight and 15 years of age spend online has more than doubled in a decade. Teens now spend nearly three and a half more hours per week online than they do watching television.

What are Kids Doing Online?

Mostly, they are connecting with peers via social media (a favorite pastime for girls) and by playing games, like Fortnight, while wearing headsets that let them chat with other players (a favorite activity for boys).

Comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently challenged parents to turn off Fortnight while their children were in the middle of a game in order to videotape their kids’ reactions. The compilation video that Kimmel played on his show, while entertaining, was also incredibly disturbing. Kids reacted to being interrupted mid-play with abject horror, many shouting expletives at and even hitting their parents.

While some online connecting with friends by kids who are old enough to use social media and games responsibly (remember, most social media sites require kids to be at least 13 years of age to open their own accounts) is normal and even healthy, too much time online isn’t good for anyone. But technology makes it nearly impossible for kids to disconnect themselves from their devices.

Pleasurable online activities activate the same area of the brain that experiences pleasure from eating, sex, drugs, alcohol, and gambling. The patterns of neurons firing across the brain in all of the instances are almost identical. PET scans and functional MRI’s reveal an increase in glucose uptake in the areas of the brain that are pleasure-oriented during tech-use, and the neurotransmitter associated with that process is dopamine—the brain’s feel-good chemical.

The bottom line? Kids, like all of us, are drawn to the pleasure that technology delivers. Kids are also drawn to their friends. It’s no wonder that research conducted by the nonprofit Common Sense Media finds that fifty percent of teens say they feel “ addicted” to their devices. What’s a parent to do?

Offering Alternatives To Tech: Digital Media Vacation

Meeting with parents across the country, I often hear them express their angst about how much time their kids spend with tech. They are weary of battling their kids over screen time, and they want to know how they can help their kids want to spend less time online.

This is one of the major issues we address in the classroom. As a middle school Cyber Civics teacher, I’ve taught digital literacy for nearly ten years. During this time, I’ve discovered that kids themselves are becoming aware that it’s important to disconnect now and then. So one of the things I challenge students to do is to make a screen-free “bucket list.” Everything from skateboarding to baking cookies makes it on to these lists. Then we have a contest to see how many of these activities students can cross of their lists during the 24-hour digital media “vacation” I assign for homework.

I know this sounds extremely simplistic, but believe it or not, because of the incredible amount of time kids today spend staring at screens, many have simply never experienced a dose of feel-good dopamine from non-screen activities that gave us pleasure as kids. If kids don’t know what they’re missing, how can they ever miss it?

An At-Home Activity

In “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology” I offer parents several at-home activities that will help their children build a healthy relationship with technology. Here is one of those activities. You might enjoy doing this with your children over the holidays when they inevitably tell you they have “nothing to do”!

  1. Get a large piece of blank white paper. Write “100 Non-Screen Activities” at the top. Together with your children, think of all the things you can do as a family, or that they can do alone, that do not involve a screen. Your family could go to the park, the beach, or the zoo. Your children could paint, draw, skateboard, or hike. (These activities will vary according to each child’s age and interests.) They could write a letter to Grandma, make dinner with you, or walk the dog. The point is to come up with 100 ideas and write them down.
  1. Post this list in a prominent place in your house. Encourage your children to refer to it when they’re tempted to turn to technology, or when they’ve already been online too long. You also can refer to it when you find yourself doing something like scrolling mindlessly through your Facebook feed. Use the list to inspire your family to do fun, non-screen activities together and alone. Your kids may even find these new offline experiences so pleasurable and dopamine-inducing that they end up craving a good hike over a game of Fortnite. Who knows? Anything could happen!

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Diana Graber DrGreene.com contributor

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