The other day, I jumped in the van to head to the grocery store and got down the street before I noticed I’d left my phone charging at home. Once I realized it, I felt like I was missing a limb and had to resist the urge to turn around and get it. The store is only a mile from home and the likelihood of me being needed in that half hour or so was very, very slim. But I felt anxiety over not having it on hand.
I have fallen down a rabbit hole of electronics. And my kids are in that hole with me. I know I need to wean them (and myself) off screens, but it is much easier said than done. I’d love to say that I didn’t hand my preschooler the Kindle to keep him busy as I type this or allow our data plan to be eaten up by the teenagers on a recent car trip to keep peace. But I’d be kidding myself.
We are habitually and immediately accessing and responding to nearly every email, phone call, text message, tag or tweet. Documenting the details of our days on social media and giving ourselves the impression that everything is urgent. If you’ve uttered, “I just need a minute to answer this” or heard “Just let me finish this level” more than once today, you aren’t alone. Too much media can feed anxiety, depression, insecurity, obesity and other conditions. Luckily, something that can help is right outside your door: nature!
Nature has a restorative power that cannot be denied. We want our kids to get outside for the physical benefits of fresh air and exercise, but the mental health boosts from outdoor activity are just as crucial.
Dr. Sarah Cornbrooks, a Baltimore-area clinical child psychologist, recommends the therapeutic benefits of being outdoors for her patients. Cornbrooks provides treatment for a wide variety of mental health concerns including anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning disorders and low self-esteem. She regularly “prescribes” a homework assignment to get outdoor time, particularly for kids that are frequently on phones or iPads. It’s not a fix in and of itself, but it can be a valuable part of achieving better overall mental health.
“The ages 10, 11, 12, becomes a time when, if given a choice in structuring their own time, kids tend to choose to be on a device,” Cornbrooks says. It’s isolating, especially when overused. It is tough being a kid these days, particularly a middle schooler, when self-esteem is teetering and social media stokes insecurity. “For a middle school girl obsessed with Snapchat, getting outside for 10 minutes, paired with exercise, is a great mood lifter,” Cornbrooks notes. Feeling better is a great motivator to choose to do it again.
“When we exercise, our moods rise, particularly on a nice day. When you disconnect from technology and all that we are inundated with, when you get away from the video games and the iPads, you allow yourself to just have your own thoughts. Being ‘bored’ can be a good thing,” Cornbrooks continues.
Cornbrooks says mindfulness can start with subtle shifts, but with practice it can become a habit that can help alleviate depression and anxiety. “Be aware of all your senses,” she advises. “Think ‘How do I feel right now? What do I hear? See? Smell?’ Taking five to ten minutes to embrace being present in the moment can help develop critical coping skills. Kids realize ‘I can shift my thinking and shift how I feel by being mindful,’ and that is a powerful tool.”
Adults can certainly benefit from an audit of electronics usage as well. Cornbrooks relates the story of a friend who cut back her phone-checking habit to just three times per day and discovered she had so much more free time and a lot less stress.
There’s no time like the present for being more present and reaping the health benefits of nature. Longer days of summer sunshine can make almost anything seem possible. I often say I’m “solar powered,” because my improved state-of-mind and energy on a nice day make me a better version of myself (my kids will attest).
Empower yourself and your children by putting away the devices and getting outdoors more often. Breathe deeply and exhale the stress. You’ll make memories and cultivate coping skills the good old-fashioned way. No wifi required.