Image of a family playing a game

By Lisa Ellis

Following a concussion, doctors often prescribe a period of screen-free resting to help the brain recover. Here are some screen-free ways to keep your child entertained during her recovery.

When Jenna Yakimowsky of Attleboro, Massachusetts was 12 years old, a wrong move during gymnastics practice resulted in a concussion, which is a form of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurs when the brain is bumped or jolted. “I had asked my coach for a spot on a skill and I ended up landing on my head,” she remembers. Since then, 2 years have passed—she is now 14 and a freshman in high school—but the trying time is still fresh on her mind.

She remembers all too clearly the trip to the doctor, receiving the diagnosis, and a frustrating 4-month recovery period, in which she was instructed to avoid all electronics and to forego many of her favorite activities while her brain healed. The period felt long and difficult and made her feel socially isolated. She also remembers that her symptoms—headaches, dizziness, and trouble concentrating—didn’t resolve on their own. Physical therapy finally helped her ease back into her regular routine.

The Rise in Concussion Rates

Unfortunately, Jenna’s experience is fairly common, since concussion statistics among youth have been on the rise recently. In 2012, approximately 330,000 children ages 19 and under were treated for a similar sports or recreation-related TBI, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number has more than doubled from a decade earlier.

The reason for the uptick in concussion incidents may actually be the result of better reporting. There has been growing awareness among parents and coaches about the signs and symptoms of concussions and related injuries, and recognition of the need to seek medical attention. “Parents are taking concussions more seriously in sports and are pulling their kids out of sports more often after concussions than they have in the past,” said Jason Liauw, MD, neurosurgeon at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California.

Risk Varies by Age and Gender

Dr. Liauw points out that while many people associate concussions with contact sports—such as football and hockey—they can also occur in competitive sports (as Jenna found out) and in other recreational activities. The risk and prevalence really varies depending on age and gender.

“For males, the leading cause of high school sports concussion is football; football accounts for 60% of all concussions. For females, the leading cause of high school sports concussion is soccer,” Dr. Liauw said. “Among children and youth ages 5-18 years, the 5 leading sports or recreational activities that account for concussions include: bicycling, football, basketball, playground activities, and soccer.”

Concussion Recovery Protocol

Once someone suffers a concussion, the recovery time can be 3 months or more. “The brain takes a long time to heal,” Dr. Liauw explains. Further, while every case is different, there are some general recommendations that most concussion patients are asked to follow. (The exact protocol and timeframe can vary, so be sure to follow your doctor’s orders for your specific case if you are coping with a concussion diagnosis.) Typical guidelines may include:

  • Taking mandatory rest periods. Most people who suffer a concussion must let their brains “rest” by avoiding most physical and mental activity. This includes getting plenty of sleep and taking it easy on school work and mental activities that can tax the brain. It’s important to ease back into school and other commitments slowly and listen to your body so you can adapt your activity level for your specific needs. “Parents need to be aware that after a concussion, kids need time to recover, even if they look well,” Dr. Liauw says.
  • Avoiding contact sports and strenuous activities. This is because of the danger that another injury could occur while the sufferer is still recovering. “There is such a thing as 'second impact syndrome.' Second concussions, especially if the brain hasn't had time to heal from the first one, can be devastating for kids and adults,” Dr. Liauw says.
  • Foregoing electronics. Keep in mind that “strain and overstimulation can magnify symptoms (fatigue, nausea, headaches). The idea is that the brain circuitry is perturbed and hypersensitive, so over-activity makes the patient feel worse,” he says. “Using phones to talk is okay, but anything that is overstimulating or can trigger headaches or induce eye strain should be avoided including: TVs, video games, and phone screens. Generally, we recommend spartan use of these devices for the first three months following a concussion,” he adds.

Hanging Up Electronics

While following all of these recommendations can be difficult for concussion patients, it’s the last recommendation—foregoing technology, including smart phones, television, video games, tablets—that can be most challenging for kids today. It can be just as tough on their parents, who don’t know how to help their children pass the time productively without screen use throughout the long recovery period. In fact, replacing screen time requires some creativity, but it can also be rewarding since it offers your child a chance to return to a simpler time of life and simpler activities.

“When we found out Jenna had a concussion and had to avoid screen use, our first reaction was, OH BOY—how are we supposed to not use screens when life is all about technology? School work, texting, social media—this is the life of a teen,” says Jenna’s mom, Deanna Yakimowsky. But it did not take long before the family rallied around Jenna and helped her engage in other things, such as playing with her puppies, listening to music, making knot blankets, and enjoying simple things like a walk in a new area, a visit to a new store, or a trip to a local coffee shop to try a new menu item.

Finding Safer Alternatives

Other parents may also find incorporating simple activities or treats can take a stressful situation and turn it into something more enjoyable. If you are struggling to support a child diagnosed with a concussion, here are some suggestions for things your child can do to help make the most of the concussion recovery period:

Learning to play an instrument can be an effective way to avoid screens as your child recovers from a concussion.

  • Make the bedroom a quiet and appealing spot with cozy pillows and soft bedding to encourage downtime and resting.
  • Take a walk outside and enjoy fresh air and nature.
  • Listen to soft music.
  • Try a non-contact sport, such as shooting hoops in your driveway or at the local park. (Just be sure your child listens to his or her body and does not overdo it.)
  • Bond with your pets.
  • Plant—or tend to—a garden.
  • Learn an instrument.
  • Invite friends over for face-to-face conversations.
  • Do puzzles.
  • Take up a new craft, such as knitting, making jewelry, or painting.
  • Play games as a family.
  • Talk on the phone without looking at the screen.
  • Bake or try a new recipe.
  • Find new ways to do the things you love. For instance, Jenna kept up with her favorite TV shows by listening to the sound without looking at the images on the screen.

Dr. Liauw adds one important caveat: “Parents can encourage their children to take it slow and listen to their bodies and be flexible.” Over time, it will slowly start to get easier.

Keeping It In Perspective

Deanna also points out that communication was key. “Talk with your child daily. Ask how she’s doing and tell her it’s okay to feel the way she’s feeling. Be assured that as long as the child is following doctor’s orders she WILL get better and this will be a distant memory soon enough,” she stresses.

For additional ideas and resources, visit Screen-Free Week, a site devoted to an international effort between families, schools, and communities to “swap digital entertainment for the joys of life beyond the screen.” Each spring the group designates a “screen-free week” (this year’s celebration took place May 1–7, 1017) to encourage old-fashioned activities that don’t involve screens.