Guest post by Alyson Weinberg

In the 21st century, technology is childhood’s constant companion, acting as everything from a big-screen babysitter so a toddler’s mom can take a shower, to an integral aspect of teens’ social and academic life. A typical day for school-age kids likely includes early-morning texting from the bus stop, video games and social media after school, television viewing before bed, listening to music on their smart phones and more texting after lights out.  

Kids today spend on average more than seven hours each day in front of electronic media. In contrast, they spend only four to seven minutes per day in unstructured outdoor activities like climbing trees, building forts, playing hide and seek, or bike riding on a sunny afternoon. The kind of activities that only a generation ago were as much a part of the fabric of childhood as Wii, Facebook and Angry Birds are today.

The Lure of Media Starts Early

  • Will-Nook_595x39747% of babies and toddlers ages 0-1 watch TV or DVDs.
  • Those who do watch spend an average of nearly two hours per day, according to a recent study by Common Sense Media.
  • The Nielsen Company reports preschoolers log an excess of 32 hours a week of TV: by the time most children attend kindergarten, they have watched more than 5,000 hours of television, enough time to have earned a college degree.

School-age kids are heavy consumers of media, particularly digital forms such as computers, handheld and console video game players, and other interactive mobile devices such as cell phones, according to the Common Sense Media study. Some young children are even media multi-taskers. Among 5- to 8- year-olds, 23% use more than one type of media at a time “some or most of the time.”

For Teens, Texting Reigns

According to Pew Research Center:

  • Half of teens are sending 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month.
  • One in three teens are sending more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month.

Balancing Media Time and Outdoor Time

The importance of media in today’s world is indisputable, but a sky’s-the-limit approach to technology can have a powerful downside for kids if it’s not tempered with something more down to earth. Children who spend too much time indoors in front of electronic screens are simply not as active, increasing their likelihood of becoming obese and succumbing to the host of health problems associated with a more sedentary lifestyle.

They’re also missing out on profound mood effects of outdoor time: studies show that stress levels fall within minutes of going outside. In this high-paced world, spending time in nature helps kids focus, reducing symptoms in children suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In addition, free play teaches kids to share, cooperate and resolve problems, whereas kids who interact primarily online can feel withdrawn and socially isolated.

It is too simplistic to romanticize the “good old days” and advocate a return to a time before technology when kids roamed freely. It’s a new world, with new temptations and challenges. But there are ways to help kids use technology in a manner that benefits them most while reaping the benefits of outdoor play.

6 Suggestions to Help You Use Media to Your Advantage

Luke_ReadingGPS_300x5081. Go Geocaching:

Take your kids on an outdoor adventure that combines popular GPS technology and a treasure hunt. Don’t have a GPS? There are several smart phone apps that can do the trick. Learn more

2. Transform a favorite online game into a real one:

Try this fun Angry Birds outdoor adaptation: You’ll need old shoe boxes, paper cups, magic markers and rubber balls. Build a wall out of shoe boxes, then set up some paper cups along the wall to represent the Pigs in the game (your kids can draw pigs onto the paper cups too). Have your children take turns throwing rubber balls representing the Angry Birds at the paper cups, or Pigs. Have fun and be creative!

3. Play Seek and Find:

Have your child research your family’s next outdoor adventure by searching online with NatureFind, which offers location information for wonderful parks, hiking trails, and other outdoor recreational spots near your home when you input your zip code. Pack water, snacks, or lunch and venture out to find nature in your neighborhood.

4. Picture This:

Take photos of nature with your child and upload them to Ranger Rick’s Photo Nature Photo Contest. There’s no deadline and great prizes, so go out in each season and snap away.

5. Tweeting is for the birds:

Scope out local birds, or other interesting wildlife, in your backyard and log onto Wildlife Watch to share your findings with others.

6. There’s an app for that:

Enjoy some of the many nature and wildlife-related apps available on your smart phone, including:

  • WildObs (a suite of apps that help you identify and record wildlife)
  • Click-the-Birdie (Bird photography game for kids ages 7 and up)
  • NatureFind (mobile component for nature and outdoor event search engine)
  • North Face Trailhead (locate hiking trails near you)
  • Florafolio (interactive field guide to native plants of North America)

Get more tips on balancing screen time with green time: Make Digital Technology Your Ally in Getting Kids Outside.