Finding Balance: From Virtual Reality to Actual Reality

Help your kids move away from the screen and immerse themselves in their tangible surroundings to thrive.

By Sarah Shaw Lopano, MED, BCBA

I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t want to see their child fully engaged and moti­vated to embrace life. For some that goal may be aca­demic excellence or a lofty career aspiration; for others the vision is one of spiritual engagement and philanthropic involvement. Ultimately, the goal for many fami­lies is for a child to know the fulfill­ment that comes of a well-rounded, healthy life—wherever the child finds achievement and success, they find happiness.

Often parents can feel that their hopes for their children’s success dim when they walk in the door for the umpteenth day in a row to find their son or daughter sitting on the couch in the midst of yet another Netflix binge. Although the child goes to school and is doing fine in classes, 3 p.m. finds them repeatedly falling back into the habit of screen-time stagnation.

Not only is this scene heartbreak­ing for a parent because it indicates a lack of productivity but it can also predict poor long-term outcomes for developing children and teens. Too much screen time, whether on a gaming monitor, iPhone, laptop, or TV, correlates to decreased atten­tion span and negative effects on learning. Of course, these devices are almost essential in our society, and I’m not suggesting that they are all bad. Kids’ brains aren’t wired to self-regulate, however, which means overuse is common and par­ents need to step in.

The first thing you can do as a parent is set a good example. Many kids indicate that their parents spend excessive amounts of time on their phones and computers. You have a demanding job with nonstop e-mails and have to stay in touch with your always-active family—I get it. But your kids are paying more attention than you think and imitating your behavior. As often as you can, set the phone down and be present with your kids. Don’t bring your phone to the dinner table and always carve time out of your day to be “unplugged.”

Now that you’re managing your own screen time a little better, how do you manage it for your kids? Rules and regulations surrounding screen time are important, but the best thing you can do is get them busy and active. It will leave less downtime for screens and develop personal interests that supersede the newest Xbox game. Here are a few ways to put this into practice:

  • Develop hobbies. The best way to get your child away from a screen is to develop an interest in some­thing else. Hobbies look very different throughout the span of childhood. It may mean sign­ing up your tot for finger-paint­ing classes, spending time at the library, and taking them to gym­nastics. For your sports-obsessed teen, it may mean requiring that they sign up for at least one extra­curricular activity in the arts. While it will differ from child to child, the goal should always be to expand their interests to develop a more-rounded sense of self and to get them out in the community as much as possible.
  • Encourage friendships. Kids often use screens to avoid social interaction due to a lack of social skills; in turn, too much screen time decreases the opportunities to develop those skills. To combat this cycle, parents should encour­age the healthy development of friendships throughout child­hood. This may mean coordinat­ing consistent playdates, encour­aging your teen to invite a friend over for dinner and a movie, or establishing a carpool with neighborhood kids. Whatever it may look like for your child, it is essential to support interactions with peers on a regular basis to allow them the necessary time to develop friendships and inter­personal skills that will stave off screen time.
  • Socialize together. A problem I see often in my line of work is the parent vs. child dynamic. All interactions are a constant battle and power struggle. Ulti­mately, kids don’t want to hang out with their parents, and it’s often because they don’t have any common ground. One easy way to build a healthier and happier relationship is to stop resorting to simply talking about your day. If your kids are old enough, bring an interesting New York Times article to the table each night and discuss it. This allows for sophis­ticated conversations and devel­ops personal opinions and an understanding of the world that will take your child far in life.
  • Establish chores. Give your child both daily and weekly chores to complete. Chores teach kids the value of hard work, life skills, and responsibility for themselves and others. They also require time management and help estab­lish a routine that will take away from screen time. With that said, simply asking your child to do chores is not enough. It is important to have a consistent set of expectations that make it clear to your child what you want each completed chore to look like and what will happen if the child does not comply—and then stick to the plan! Be consistent in your expectations and consequences. Finally, hold a weekly family meeting to discuss any concerns you or your child may have about their household responsibilities.

Once your child has established interests outside the home, devel­ops appropriate skills through friendships and familial relation­ships, and is managing household responsibilities, you will see that their interest and availability for screen time will be diminished. You can avoid those screaming matches about the hours spent on Facebook and focus your relationship with your child on helping them achieve in all areas of life.


Sarah Shaw Lopano, MEd, BCBA, is a board-certified behavior ana­lyst and the assistant clinical director for Cognition Builders, an education-based company that designs individualized home-based educational programs that address the idiosyncratic needs of clients and their families through a comprehensive program, which includes the implementation of an award-winning curriculum. Sarah works with clients around the globe via Skype and in person to help create balance and stability in their lives. In her personal life, she is an avid CrossFitter and lover of anything containing squash.