"Kids just aren't the same these days."
It's a sentiment we hear from the soccer field to the swimming pool. I've said it myself while coaching swimming or teaching groups to cross country ski. Kids seem to have a harder time trying new things and overcoming missteps or failures. Resiliency is on the decline, and anxiety is on the rise. We see increases in sleeping issues and eating disorders. It is easy to simply chalk it up to helicopter parents or those dang millennials (who are in their 30s now, by the way). However, the root driver is a larger issue for our society than just lazy kids. Youth today are growing up in a more connected global society. They face data assaults daily and are being pulled in every direction. Our youth are overwhelmed, anxious, and lonely. That can result in angst, fear, and mental exhaustion. And that can be paralyzing without the psychological and emotional tools or the maturity to work through feelings.
How do parents and youth-development professionals assist our youth in building coping skills? First, take some time to reflect on your own family's schedule or youth-program environment. How much rest is built into our days? Do we help youth practice moments of reflection? Are we overscheduled? Do we help youth walk through their emotions or dismiss them? Do we make time to listen? Second, what does your family's media consumption look like? Youth experience significant distress when screen access is removed. Plan for this withdrawal-like response. Challenge youth in your life, and yourself, to weekly screen breaks. Remember to start small so the habit sticks.
I started challenging youth in our after-school programs at the Duluth YMCA to go one hour without their phones. This "power hour," as we called it, helped stop the flow of endless stimulation from media and redirected the children toward activities involving more decision-making and interaction with peers. Youth are great imitators. If they see the adults in their lives reading a book, making a meal together, or taking a walk after dinner instead of scrolling through their phones, this sends a signal about healthy habits. Invite the youth in your life to join you in screen-free activities. A helpful practice is to designate a spot for cell phones when they are not in use instead of just keeping them nearby at all hours. A fun suggestion at nationaldayofunplugging.com is a "cell phone sleeping bag," a little pouch to encourage youth to give cell phones, and themselves, a break.
Lastly, be intentional about spending time outdoors. And I'm specific here about the kind of time youth need to help reset their brains: unstructured time outside. Today, it is estimated kids only spend seven minutes of their day in unstructured outdoor play vs. seven hours in front of screens. Sports camps and other highly structured activities are great for youth to learn new skills and stay active. However, they miss some elements of helping youth develop other possibly neglected parts of their brains. Highly competitive events rev up stress hormones and can increase the anxiety response. Unstructured play outdoors, on the other hand, allows youth to access more autonomy, practice decision-making skills, and be creative. Outdoor play gives access to times of reflection and being grounded in the moment rather than in what coaches are saying or what is happening next. A perfect place to experience unstructured yet supervised outdoor play and reflection is at summer camp. Youth experience a screen-free environment away from parents and responsibilities. The summer camp week allows youth to make their own choices, reflect on their lives, and connect with others in a meaningful way, face to face. National Unplugging Day is from sundown today to sundown Saturday. Plan a screen-free 24 hours that include quality time with family and friends, time outdoors, and moments to reflect with the youth in your life as we step into a new month.
Sara Eder of Duluth is executive director at Camp Miller after working 13 years at the YMCA. This evening at sundown through sundown Saturday is National Day of Unplugging.
To learn more, go to: ** nationaldayofunplugging.com