Good Digital Parenting
Blog | July 24, 2019

The Trouble With ‘Screen Time’: Ditch Counting Digital Calories and Build Your Family’s Digital Nutrition

Psychologist and Founder, Digital Nutrition

Much of the advice and anxiety over young people’s digital device use has been centered around the amount of time that is spent online – and attempting to keep within the ‘virtually impossible’ prescribed limits outlined by the American Academy of Pediatrics, The World Health Organization and health departments in Australia and Canada.

Beyond a nerdy analysis of the methodology by which these limits are constructed and some of the problems with this, there are some obvious reasons why putting too much focus on the metric of time spent online is problematic. 

Let’s bring in a food analogy to help us here.  It’s one that has been used in varying degrees for a decade, starting off with Daniel Sieberg’s book The Digital Diet and the rise of the futile endeavor known as a ‘digital detox’.

We all need to eat; we all have been educated (at least to some extent) about what healthy eating and living looks like. We know what our food preferences are, and what we might be allergic to.  Many of us (especially women) have been on a diet (or seven!) in order to change our weight, and most likely failed. We can apply some of the best practice thinking around healthy eating and nutrition (that is to shun toxic diet culture) to how we consume information online.  I call it Digital Nutrition™.

Digital Nutrition™ is about thinking beyond screen time limits and restrictions, and doing the deep and messy work of understanding our relationship with technology and creating more savvy habits relating to what, when and why we choose to consume different items from the enormous digital buffet. It’s about negating the need to unplug with intentional, intelligent routines for being effectively plugged-in.

Despite the apparent rise of screen-free nannies and digital parenting coaches, the majority of parents are entering this new era of child-rearing without expensive out-sourced options and instead are left to research their own recipes for their family’s digital wellbeing. 

The good news is there are many more sources of trusted information compared to a few years ago that guide parents to manage digital device use. That said, there are also overnight ‘experts’ with their homemade memes ready to throw some moral-panic and misinformation into the mix – further highlighting the necessity for media literacy education.

Digital Nutrition™ is also about considering what nutritional labels for apps and games might look like, and imagining how we can appraise the virtual vitamins or online additives which might be contained in those activities (and asking tech developers to reveal these). When the emphasis is on time spent online, we end up counting digital calories and forget to think about the bigger context of what might make a balanced diet – the nutrients contained in the food and the context in which we might enjoy a meal together.

That’s not to say we should totally ignore time spent online as a factor in what contributes to overall wellbeing – just that it’s a fairly blunt instrument because it ignores the complexity and diversity of the content that we consume online and the myriad of ways we might interpret the information and ideas we ingest. Given the concerns about the impact of screen based media use on eye health and increased rates of myopia, emerging research ‘tech neck’ and horny bones growing out of the necks of smartphone users (albeit, another methodologically critiqued study), it’s odd that educational uses of technology are not included in the daily digital recommendation doses by experts. But perhaps eye strain and lengthy amounts of time sitting are simply believed to be characteristic of education! 

I too wonder why adults don’t have limits placed upon them?  Sure, our brains have supposedly finished developing, but parent’s use and overuse of technology is an issue that young people themselves raise as a source of conflict in their homes and relationships.  Adults are not immune to notifications and never-ending social media stories. Some of our anxiety for our children leaps directly from what we are noticing about ourselves and the changing mental acuity combined with a nostalgia for analogue times.

So, let’s take an example of two 15-year-old girls scrolling through Instagram for 45 minutes. Each follows different accounts and hashtags and will have fed the algorithm with different information so it serves a varied menu of images to each.  Neither girl will have the exact same cognitions or way of reading the images they see – they might have different personalities, levels of self-esteem, exposure to media literacy training and parental factors will vary. Those 45 minutes might have very different impacts on each of the girls.  If one was scrolling while catching a bus home from a sporting carnival where she’d been active all day, yet another was online at 2am when she should have been finishing an assignment, we can see we have very different situations again. This is part of what makes studying screen time so complex and tricky.

Time spent with screens also can tell us what other activities are being displaced across the 24-hour day. Sleep and movement are two key areas that have an important basis for health and wellbeing – but we don’t hear much about ‘sleep time’ or ‘exercise time’ with the same intensity as we do ‘screen time.’  Dr. Dan Siegal’s Healthy Mind Platter or David Ryan Polgar’s Mental Food Plate help us think about how we could be spending our time for optimal functioning.

Unplugging completely is a luxury that many families can’t afford (who will arrange the weekend sport pick-ups, answer the phone to accept an additional work shift and Skype with faraway family?) and the requirement of many schools to access technology and the Internet for learning makes disconnection very tricky. 

So how might we build both healthy connections with young people (using empowering habits rather than arbitrary restrictions) and the social-emotional skills required in the attention economy?  Try these principles:

  • Diversify your digital diet

There is a smorgasbord of online content to choose from, but we tend to stick to a small selection of websites, apps and games that are served up to us through who we follow and the things we ‘like’ online.  Your digital footprint is being tracked and building an increasingly accurate profile of what the algorithm thinks you want to consume. Try to follow less clichéd, more motivating hashtags and accounts that are in line with your values. Broaden the range of games, their themes and aims by exploring the options available at Games For Change – a site dedicated to more meaningful and positive game play.

  • Share digital meals together

Creating time to enjoy screens together is a valuable way for families to connect in a space that young people feel comfortable. While in the past we might have sat around the radio to enjoy a serial together, we can now play video games and engage in conversations based on the things we discover online. It provides parents a window into their children’s experiences and attitudes in the online space, an opportunity to mentor them in how to manage cyber-interactions, and parents might learn a bit from their kids too!

  • Watch out for the impacts of digital snacking

That ‘cheeky check’ of social media here and there is eating away at your productivity, adding to your mental load and might be making you feel crummy. Using monitoring apps like Moment, Screen Time or Digital Wellbeing can help you come to grips with how many interruptions occur throughout the day and the cumulative impact of distraction on your output.

  • Know when you’re almost full

The Okinawan Diet includes a principle of eating until you are 80% full, being mindful and savoring the food on your plate.  We can apply this idea to monitoring how we feel when online and noticing a good time to step away from the keyboard or close the app. Research shows that mild to moderate social media use is more beneficial than none (in terms of social connection and belonging) – so a sweet spot of just the right amount of connection is key.

  • Set a digital sunset

Getting good quality and sufficient quantity of sleep is vital for wellbeing. Smartphones and tablets emit more blue light than their analogue ancestors and can impact the hormones that induce sleep.  Consuming social media or gaming right up until bedtime might mean that the brain needs more time to wind-down from the high sensory demands (and emotions!) of some activities and delays the onset of and time available for sleep. Powering down devices a good 30-60 minutes before bed can help improve sleep (and mood, and cognitions and metabolism!).

  • Apply the 3M’s of Digital Nutrition

By consciously choosing to add mindfulness, meaning, and moderation to your approach to digital meals you can remain aligned to your goals and values, maximize the benefits of technology, and stay calm, considered, and conscious.

  • Demand to know more from digital farmers/developers

If we buy fresh produce at the farmer’s market we might meet the actual farmer who grew our food, learn about their philosophy, and what goes into the process.  Similarly, knowing more about the people who develop and design the games and apps we consume can help us make more informed choices about what we allow into our digital lives. Increasingly there is a demand to know more about the ethics and agenda of tech companies when it comes to design and psychological hacks used as well as data management practices. Being informed on what’s hidden in the apps we use helps us make choices around how we consume information and honor our mental health.