Kids are spending more and more time online today, whether it’s on computers, tablets or smartphones. And while the online world has its positive attributes, there is also a dark side. Children are losing the ability to communicate in person and are moving towards isolation and social awkwardness in both speech and body language. As parents, it’s easy to hand over a tablet to a 2-year old at a restaurant to allow for a nice, quiet conversation. But that same 2-year-old will eventually turn into an entitled teenager who tunes you out to text at the dinner table. By letting screens entertain the kids, you lose the opportunity to connect over a meal. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to encourage your kids to connect offline.

1. Set Healthy Boundaries Around Social Media And Gaming

I think we can all agree that for children to fully participate as functioning members of society, it’s important that they are competent and comfortable with technology. But screen time must be kept in balance in order to develop all areas of the child’s emotional, physical and spiritual health. Every family will have to determine what’s right for them, but keep in mind what the research shows. Larry Rosen, professor and past chair of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who specializes in the psychology of technology, notes, “Some of our research shows, for example, that more Facebook activity is related to more signs of certain psychiatric disorders such as narcissism.”

When setting limits, remember that time in front of screens should not take up a disproportionate amount of their day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 should avoid all screen time – including TV. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, also have an age restriction of 13 years. Video games typically have recommended ages for use as well.

So how does this play out in a real home? In our family of five, which consists of a kindergartner and high schoolers, the smartphones (for the teens) go in a bucket for homework, dinner time and bedtime. We do not allow phones upstairs and Netflix binges are discouraged. Each child is allowed one hour a day on the computer. Video games are played with friends rather than alone. TV is limited during the school week, and we try to watch movies together in community. It’s not a ton of rules, but we are pretty firm with them.

2. Model Great Listening Skills

It’s a challenge to come home from a busy day at work and change into your parent hat, but it’s crucial if you want to connect with your kids. So take intentional time to unplug by putting down your device, switching off Netflix and being still for a few minutes so you can really focus on listening to your kids. Giving your child undivided attention is a gift you want them to emulate and return to you, so model it well.

Ask the child some simple questions to get them started with sharing, but keep it non-judgmental and lighthearted. Reflect their feelings without trivializing them and then repeat it back to them to make sure you understand what they are communicating. As you talk, lean into them with sincerity and curiosity. Try not to pull away if they say something you don’t agree with, and breathe in and out if you feel your frustration rising. Nothing shuts down a kid like a mean tone or anger. Make a conscious decision to inquire about their passions.

If the child breaks down and shows vulnerability, try not to lecture. This is the time for support and comfort. If they ask for guidance, let them know how you would approach the problem, but don’t give unsolicited advice in a listening moment. In a world of social media rants, few people know how to listen well anymore. This is your opportunity to teach a valuable life skill.

3. Place A High Value On Community

One of the problems with social media is that it creates a false sense of community. People will say things online they would never say in real-life scenarios. The goal with our kids is to build real relationships with people who will laugh with us, support us and hold us accountable to our words and actions. With this goal in mind, we encourage as many activities as possible to be done in a community of like-minded folks.

Research shows that friends really do matter. A recent study examined 1,500 older people for 10 years. It discovered that those who had a strong support system of friends and community lived longer than those with fewer friends by more than 20 percent. Sheldon Cohen, PhD, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says strong social support helps people cope with stress.

“There may be broader effects as well,” Cohen says. “Friends encourage you to take better care of yourself. And people with wider social networks are higher in self-esteem, and they feel they have more control over their lives.”

With kids, the choice of friends is especially important because peer groups can easily influence them in negative aspects, too. However, loneliness is what usually drives kids into making bad choices about friends since they are desperate for community and acceptance. Keeping our kids connected through church, sports, service groups and other activities reaps great benefits when compared to the loneliness and isolation of screen time.

4. Explore The Outside

I’ve found the best way to get my kids to open up is to get outside and have some fun. Go swimming, camping, hiking, off-roading, etc. Whatever the adventure, find a way to incorporate exercise, nature and conversation and you will have a kid who spontaneously spills his heart out to you over a s’more. Getting outside is about creating opportunities for you to connect with your child in a non-threatening environment. There is nothing like a little fun and no Wi-Fi to open up a sulky teen.

So turn off those phones, listen to their hearts and cherish your kids who will grow up way too soon. Teach them how to communicate well now so that your future interactions when they grow up are more than just the occasional text from college.

You may also be interested in Raising The Next Generation: Avoiding Entitled Kids With Good Parenting

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