When it comes to raising kids in a digital world, one of the most common questions parents ask is "how much screen time is appropriate for a child aged ___?" The question comes from an understanding that healthy limits should exist for children using technology. This is true of any activity that risks interfering with other important life activities. However, using the clock as the primary way to set boundaries may not be the best approach to raising healthy digital kids.
There are several challenges to fixating on the amount of time a child spends on a screen each day. First, the research that led to screen time recommendations was based on passive TV consumption (long before the Internet ever existed). Watching TV is a very different activity from many of the types of digital activities accessed by kids today. But the most important issue with setting time limits for moderating tech use is that it creates the perception that all digital activities are of equal value. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Let's look at two digital activities; a video chat with a grandparent and playing a repetitive, luck-based game. Both activities take place on a device (with a screen) but the value of each activity is quite different. When we moderate device use by screen time, we teach young people that tech use is binary (allowed or not) which teaches that all digital activities are of equal value. This removes the necessity to develop the critical skill of learning to recognise which digital activities are much more valuable than others, and therefore which deserve more of our time.
If we've outgrown using screen time as our tool for moderating tech use in our families, what is a better best approach for keeping tech use in check? Instead of enforcing rigid screen-time limits, the concept that we should seek to teach is balance. This is a concept that we regularly teach in the physical world. We point out that healthy people balance the time they spend with friends and family, and by themselves. They know how to balance exercise and rest. They make time for work and play, being serious and having fun.
The value of the vast majority of activities is determined by their proportional relationship to other activities. Exercise is a good thing, unless we start exercising so much that we aren't finishing our homework or spending time with family and friends. Getting rest is also good, but oversleeping, especially habitually, diminishes our productivity and mental health. Being imaginative is good, but when done in the wrong contexts, it's considered lying.
Balance may not look the same from day to day either. The day before a big science project is due, it would be out of balance to spend the whole day riding a bike. The day before a violin recital, it might be inappropriate to spend the whole day reading instead of practicing, even though on a different day that might be a great choice. As parents, we watch for indicators in the physical world when activities feel out of balance. Finding balance in our virtual world is just as important. We have to make sure that we are equally adamant about helping our children learn to find digital balance as we are at helping them find balance in other parts of their lives. The following three principles can help.
Teaching balance sets our kids up for future success. We want them to learn to recognise when it's time to move on to another activity, not by a timer going off, but by a desire to keep balance.