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Summertime: A good time to address screen time

Summer is officially here: longer days, warmer temperatures and opportunities abound for outdoor activities in northern Illinois.

While many are enjoying these outdoor summertime activities, an overwhelming amount of young people (and many adults) are increasingly staying inside. Between school and home, kids spend more than seven hours a day on screens, and according to one research study, only four to seven minutes are spent engaged in outdoor activities, such as walking from the car into school or taking out the garbage.

Excessive or inappropriate use of screens can be a contentious subject between parents, children and teens, and there are no easy answers. It’s important to be aware of the risk factors and to identify engaging and healthy alternatives. Overuse can lead to impaired cognitive function, and addiction can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit and sleep disorder, to name a few.

Warning signs of electronics addiction can include the following: more and more time on smartphone or other devices; lying about use; loved ones expressing concern; partner feeling ignored; neglect of self-care, homework or duties at work or home; becoming preoccupied with checking online social media accounts obsessively; seeming more tired or irritable; and/or not going anywhere without the device.

Even if a person is not addicted to the device, an overwhelming majority have developed patterns of use with smartphones. To improve quality of life, these patterns – or habits – must be evaluated and likely changed. Years of research tells us habits can’t be broken; to change habitual behavior, negative habits need to be replaced with healthy ones.

Summertime provides the right amount of time (1 to 2 months) and an excellent opportunity to reset and moderate screen time by replacing the negative habits we have developed. Brainstorm ideas for activities that replace technology with human interaction, learn how to use and set parental controls, negotiate (with your children or yourself) less use overall or black out times to engage in activities that can’t easily be done with a smartphone in hand such as bike riding, swimming or even folding laundry. Or perhaps find an activity that engages full focus such as archery or creative artwork.

Based on available research, we know that being outside can improve health and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, inattention and other challenges to mental health. According to one study of nearly 20,000 participants, people who spent at least two hours in nature each week were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who didn’t. That’s an average of just 17 minutes a day.

If you or someone you know has a mental health concern related to mental health related to this or other problems, please seek consultation with someone who can help, whether by talking to others about how they’ve approached similar situations or by calling for professional counseling. More often than not, it’s more manageable when this team approach is used.

Lynette Spencer is a licensed clinical social worker with Action Consulting and Therapy in Geneva.