How to get your teens off screens

Di Westaway | Chief Adventure Chick | Wild Women On Top

I know I was a moody teen but grumpy, miserable, withdrawn, pimply, aggressive, morose, smart phone addicted teens now seems the norm. I’m often at war with mine. 

But last Sunday night in the freezing cold, at a time when we’d usually be snuggled in front of the TV playing on our devices slurping hot pumpkin soup, my teen and I went walking instead. In the dark.

With the icy wind tingling our cheeks, I took six mums and their teens along the rocky shores of Sydney Harbour, chatting and laughing as we negotiated the waves, oyster beds, exposed ledges and rocky shores.

One of the girls, tall, gangly and super confident, darted around the cliff ledge a few meters above me as the water lapped at our ankles on the platform below. We were looking for a way around an impassable rocky tower. “This looks good,” said Sammy as the others continued strolling along the coastal rock shelf guided by head torches. 

“Careful,” I yelled hoping she didn’t tumble onto the jaggered rocks below as she bounded down to sea level like a gazelle before joining the rest of us drinking hot chocolate perched on the convoluted waterside sandstone headland.  

This group of mums and teens has been preparing to trek the Larapinta trail for three months. And we’d just spent three screen-free hours together. 

I admit I’m a recovering smart phone addict but I fear for my kid’s future. The World Health Organisation says our lifestyle is slowly killing us all but nobody want so bury their offspring. With youth suicide sky rocketing, mental illness affecting one in six of us and 63% of us overweight or obese, there’s reason for concern.  

The delights of the digital age create new problems. We’ve all tried rules like no devices at the dinner table, when I’m talking to you, when I’m chauffeuring you, while studying and while watching tellie. 

I’ve even tried linking an hour on a screen with half an hour of outdoor activity like lying on the grass daydreaming, digging in the dirt, bike riding, walking the dog, playing in the park, strolling around the block and playing sport. 

Sick of being a nagger, a bully, a digital dictator, I almost gave up. Then I took my teen trekking in Indonesia. We hiked to the lip of a volcanic crater overlooking the emerald lake below Mt Rinjani. My 14 year old son wrapped his arms around me, looked into my eyes and said, “I love you mum. Thanks for bringing me here.”

This was astonishing after four screen free days of hard core trekking.  Memes, Instagram, Dragonvale, Facebook and texting were replaced by climbing through the jungle, scrambling up ladders, chatting, sharing jokes, racing down steep dusty trails, swinging in trees, swimming in hot springs, leaping off waterfalls, playing cards and teasing monkeys.

Science shows how the feel good hormones of endorphin and serotonin are triggered by immersion in nature. It also reveals that constant device connection induced grumpiness is the result of fluctuations in another happy hormone, dopamine.

In the forest kids live in the moment, work as a team, move and solve self-created puzzles while getting the physical and mental disease-preventing benefits of movement. But back home we’re back online. Confiscating my son’s smartphone still helps him get his homework and chores done but the battle is unrelenting. 

Research shows that too much screen time is bad but being in nature is good for us. A recent report  shows 20-30% of Australian kids suffer significant psychological distress while 50% have frequent headaches, stomach-aches and insomnia. Our lifestyle is impacting adversely on young people’s health and wellbeing.

We have become disconnected from nature and the lifestyle for which our bodies and minds are best adapted. The simplest way to give your kids a break from technology is to go walking outside. But hard to do, especially if WE don’t do it too. 

One solution is to find a mini adventure you can do together and make walking a family ritual. Teens are quick to spot inconsistencies in what we say and do so it’s essential to walk the walk. But a shared healthy goal is even better. 

A fun run like the “Mother’s Day Classic”, a riding event or an adventure challenge like “The Stampede” might entice teens. Or try downloading maps and going bushwalking with them. As long as you invite a friend along, they’ll come. But if that fails, just confiscate their smartphone.  

I’ve learned that it’s not just me who needs a challenging adventure to stay fit, healthy and screen free. It works for my kids too.

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