Glance at any youngster these days and the signs are unmistakable: ear buds dangle, fingers text, and a Wii controller is never far away. This is the most plugged-in generation in history, and for many of them, summer simply means more time to gaze, glazed-eyed at those flickering, irresistible screens.

Children's television and video game use, already at a jaw-dropping 44.5 hours a week, soars as much as 50 percent higher during the summer months, says David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family. That leaves many parents in one of two unenviable roles: chief nagger or guilty enabler.

"Sometimes it's easier to let the kids sit in front of the TV," Berkeley family therapist Bruce Linton says sympathetically. "It's a way to create some calm time in the house."

But unrestrained electronics use — unrestrained anything, actually — is not healthy.

Balanced approach

"Parents need to be parents," says Linton, "and they need to regulate their children's use of television and video games. Be their parents, not their friends."

Liz Perle agrees. The editor-in-chief at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based children's advocacy group, is not anti-technology, but reminds us that electronics are just one element in a child's life.

"If you only exercise one muscle, what happens to you? You get out of shape everywhere else," says Perle. "It's important for kids to have a balanced approach to life. We're all made of body, mind and spirit. You've got to nurture each piece to have a whole healthy child."

But, she says, it's unrealistic to expect a child to set down the tempting video game and do something else on his own.

High-tech magnets

"If you're going to give kids completely unscripted time," she says, "they're going to gravitate toward technology. It's a parent's job to find alternatives. If you don't make the plan, you're setting them up."

Having some kind of structure, whether it's a day camp or swim team, is beneficial on many levels, says Linton. It provides a break from the electronics, and lets kids interact with peers they might not meet at school.

Cynthia Webster's kids spend their days swimming, running through the sprinklers, indulging in the occasional smoothie or frozen yogurt outing, and attending day camps run by Pleasant Hill's park and recreation department.

"Summer camps," she says, "are a huge way for me to divert their attention."

And diverting is what it's all about, says Walsh, a familiar face on the Bay Area parent education circuit, even though his media institute is based in Minneapolis.

It's not just a couch potato issue, Walsh says. Those TV hours could be spent exploring other passions and pursuits — arts and crafts, theater classes, new sports and everything else they don't have time for during the high pressure, overly scheduled school year.

Pyramid scheme

Maybe it's time, he says, for parents to impose an activities pyramid, like the nutritional one, but bursting with active, creative fun, as well as screen time.

"Technology at the top," he says, "and things like physical exercise, new activities, crafts, theater, things that kids aren't necessarily used to doing."

It doesn't have to involve pricey classes and camps, either, although Walnut Creek mom Karen Kopiko Upshaw says she tries to look at classes as an "investment in my children." But she balances the pricier pursuits with quiet play, trips to the library, bookstores and even the mall — an air-conditioned haven on hot days.

Rent-a-teen

"I also employ a great teenager in the neighborhood," she says, "who comes to play with them for a few hours a week so I can get things done around the house."

Lafayette dad Brad Crane's summers are spent keeping his threesome — 5-year-old Megan, 3-year-old Shannon and baby Ryan — occupied and mostly unplugged.

"I don't have much of a specific summer philosophy except that we try hard to avoid (TV)," he says. "We do chalk art on the driveway, bubbles in the backyard and water our vegetable garden in addition to the swim lessons, gymnastics, camps, etc."

Parents have been posting ideas on the National Institute on Media and the Family Web site, too.

One mother said she uses geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunt that gets kids hiking and exploring local parks. Another launched "Wild Wednesdays" at her neighborhood park, with a different theme each week — sidewalk chalk, sand castles, water gun wars, or bike decorating. She handed out a flyer on the last day of school, and families just show up, picnics and sand shovel in tow.

That may work fine for little ones. What about teens?

A different breed

Teens are a different issue, even Perle admits. Parents need to first ask themselves, have they done everything necessary to provide a balance? Then sit down and come to a mutual agreement on screen time.

"Urge them to use it creatively," she says. "Garage Band, movies. Give them an assignment — a birthday video for a friend or family member. Have a home talent night and show what they've created."

Reach Jackie Burrell at jburrell@bayareanews group.com.

Fun Unplugged
Tips and tricks to keep your kids unplugged this summer. For more details, links and
contact information, visit www.ibabuzz.com/
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  • DO A DIY Day Camp: Parks and rec-sponsored day camps certainly offer economical, well-supervised fun, but some families team up to create their own DIY neighborhood camp, taking turns organizing and supervising activities. One family holds a weekly skit night. Neighborhood kids pick their favorite movie scenes, design and create costumes and props, and perform before an appreciative audience of parents and siblings.
  • TAKE UNUSUAL CLASSES: Shakespeare camp through Cal Shakes or theater classes at Berkeley Rep. Ceramics, welding or "extreme gizmo" classes at The Crucible. Or bake bread and experience 19th-century life at the John Muir Mountain Day Camp in Martinez.
  • IMPORT SOME FUN: A college student or teen baby sitter can come up with all sorts of creative backyard fun, if your instructions specify "No video games." And depending on the enthusiasm and availability of doting grandparents, a session of "Grandma Camp" may be just the ticket.
  • EXPLORE YOUR CITY: Tweens and teens can hop on BART or buses to get to the movies, museums and other Bay Area treasures. Grab a Teen Summer Passport to Adventure at the Oakland Library for more ideas.
  • HAVE FUN IN YOUR BACKYARD: For a treasure trove of backyard fun ideas, including beanpole tepees, cardboard pirate ships, stickball games, homemade sidewalk chalk and more -- as well as links to everything mentioned above -- visit our parenting blog.