Not Left to Their Own Devices

How to make screen time family time.

Small boy plays with an iPad as his father helps him get ready in the morning.

Photo by Beawiharta Beawiharta/Reuters

Screens have radically altered the way today’s kids play—and given parents a whole new set of things to worry about. Whether it’s a toddler’s facility with a touch screen or teenage friends playing FIFA 13 for hours without making eye contact, nothing ratchets up a parent’s anxiety more than watching their child stare at a flickering vortex, as blank and spooky as the girl in Poltergeist.

Those parents who have managed to impose limits on screen time can’t talk about it to other parents for fear of sounding smug or even authoritarian. The rest of us are left to wring our hands. Does Call of Duty incite violence? Is Facebook a breeding ground for bullies? Does texting distract kids from school and family, and erode their grammar too? Will a passion for Halo diminish a child’s ability to feel empathy—and if so, is TV more damaging to her emotional development?

It’s important for kids to have plenty of idle time in which to roughhouse, wander, goof off, daydream, doodle, make stuff, and indulge in other low-tech pastimes. Parents whose kids rarely do any of these things, because they’re glued to screens instead, are right to be anxious. And yet … unless your child has the kind of personality where he cannot ever release his grip on a video game controller or stop responding to texts, there’s no reason to become a Luddite. Your kid’s free time is supposed to be fun! And screens, as we all know very well, are, indeed, fun.

This is not to suggest that screen time should be doled out as a reward, in order to bribe or pacify whiny kids. The implied message of doing so is that screen time is inherently bad for you. But that simply isn’t true. Spending too much time staring at a screen isn’t a terrific idea, of course; but spending too much time doing anything is a problem. Limiting screen time—for all family members—is smart. But it’s pretty likely your kids are going to spend time in front of screens. Here are some fun, all-inclusive screen-based activities that everyone in the family can enjoy without guilt.

Citizen science: Increasingly, scientists in some fields are relying on volunteers to help out with research-related tasks that involve observation and/or measurement. Some of these projects will actually get you and your family out of the house and into nature—identifying frogs and toads by their song, say, or collecting data about local weather—before asking you to go online and record your findings.

Other citizen science tasks are strictly screen-based. One of the best-known of these is Galaxy Zoo, which asks participants to look at photos taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (a major multifilter imaging and spectroscopic survey) and the Hubble Space Telescope in order to classify galaxies. You’re asked to study an image of a galaxy while answering questions about the image: Is the galaxy spiral or elliptical? What else do you see in the image—a star, perhaps? A satellite trail? And it isn’t busywork—the first stage of the project collected millions of classifications. The current stage asks citizen scientists for more detailed classifications of a quarter-million of the brightest galaxies in the project’s sample.

Fooling around with sound: When we were kids, dual-cassette boomboxes were state-of-the-art recording technology. Kids today have it good! If you have a Mac, then you already have Apple’s GarageBand. PC users can download a free audio editor like Audacity; or an inexpensive program like Sony’s ACID Music Studio (a simplified version of ACID Pro). Today, our children record themselves making music, but even before they’d learned to play their instruments, they experimented with audio editors. With a little assistance from their parents, they created soundtracks for their homemade movies and bleeped curse words out of favorite songs. You can also use audio editing programs to make ringtones, create music loops (which makes practicing an instrument more fun), and even karaoke-ize your music by eliminating vocals.

By the way, although we’ve never prevented our children from sampling a few seconds of a pop song to play over the blooper reel on one of their stop-motion videos, we do remind them that it’s illegal and unethical to copy and share someone else’s music. Note, however, that the loops that come preloaded in GarageBand and other programs are royalty- and guilt-free.

Gamify your surroundings: The social city-guide app Foursquare is a fun way to explore your neighborhood, town, or city with the help of a smartphone. It encourages you to discover new places instead of doing the same old thing. Josh’s 12-year-old son thinks of Foursquare as a video game that takes place in the real world; he borrows Josh’s phone—the service is not available to those under 13—to check in at exotic new locales around Boston, earning badges.

Another fun real-world game is geocaching, which parents and kids can do together by downloading a geocaching app to a smartphone. (We like Geocaching from Groundspeak Inc.) Geocachers around the planet have hidden more than a million caches (containers, often filled with prizes) and uploaded their latitude and longitude to We’ve found caches hidden in our own neighborhoods, and we’ve also been lured by fun-sounding caches in other neighborhoods, in city and state parks, and in other cities. Enter a ZIP code into whichever app you’ve downloaded, and you’re off and running. Note that using the Geocaching website is free, though with a paid membership you get some extra features—like automatic notification when caches are created in your area.

Design within reach: Elizabeth’s eighth-grader loves Cities XL, a city-building computer game. In addition to creating skyscrapers and urban parks, he likes the challenge of balancing a city budget and planning the streets for traffic flow. Our families are also into SketchUp, a free program that lets you design almost anything, from an apartment building to a toothbrush. (Josh’s ninth-grader used it, with the help of older kids on his school’s robotics team, to design a robot.) And it’s sure to be even more popular once your kids start begging to get one of these.

If your kid can spend hours building underground kingdoms on Minecraft, give her a chance to actively explore how video games actually work by introducing her to programming. Our kids like Scratch, a programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab that kids—with or without a grown-up’s help — can use to create games, animations, music, interactive stories, and art. Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is a companion book that teaches you how to build lots of creative (and increasingly complicated) games. Scratch can be used by children younger than 13 as long as a parent provides a valid email address.  

Backseat fun: Waze is a free social traffic and navigation app whose users can report accidents, speed traps, and traffic jams in real time. It has a very cute interface, and it’s endlessly fascinating to observe fellow Waze users coming and going while you travel. However, it’s not safe for the driver to use! That’s where kids come in—as Chewbacca to their mom or dad’s Han Solo. Using Waze, they can not only help you find your destination but also avoid problems en route.

The music identification app Shazam may be tailor-made for bars, but it’s also perfect for driving together, whether on the morning commute to school or on a long weekend road trip. When an old—that is, pre-2005—song comes on the radio, the kid in the passenger seat races to identify it via Shazam before her parent can dredge the same info up from her own, ever-shrinking database.

When it comes to your kids and their attraction to screens, it’s best to be a neo-Luddite: Find meaningful and fun ways to share screen time with your kids, and place restrictions not on the technology itself, but on how and when it’s used. That is, of course, if you can tear yourself away from your own favorite screen diversions.