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Raising Kids in a Digital Age

Information for today's parents.

Key points

  • Instead of asking about screen time limits, consider your child's overall "digital diet."
  • Children's brain development is experience-dependent, thus diverse experiences (more than screen time) are essential.
  • Adolescents can benefit from rules around technology use, like the development of a family technology plan.

Parenting today can be overwhelming. How do we ensure the safety of our kids both offline and online? How do we make sure their screen time isn’t ruining their ability to get into college? How do we protect them from seeing violent pornography before their 12th birthday? How do we know if social media beautification filters are ruining their self-esteem?

Kids are being raised in a digital age unlike any other time period in history—so how are parents to know what is best for their children? Here are some considerations to help parents make important decisions about the use of technology and screens.

How much is too much?

Parents often ask, “How much screen time is OK?” But unfortunately, that question is too simplistic (Orben, 2021). Instead, several factors must be considered, such as:

  • The type of digital media and specific content being consumed (e.g., games, social media, pornography, the news, online videos, apps, a discussion board, texting, FaceTime, educational content).
  • Individual characteristics of the child (e.g., age, maturity, personality, mental health).
  • Motivation for using technology (e.g., to escape problems, boredom, to socialize, to feel good, to achieve, to learn, to be someone else).
  • Setting and context (e.g., alone, with peers, with known others, with unknown others).
  • Amount of time spent using tech and amount of time spent doing other things (e.g., sleeping, homework, physical activity, socializing offline, hobbies, outdoor experiences). (Orben, 2021)
  • Family values (to what extent does the particular type of digital media and the specific content align with the family's values?).

Several researchers have referred to the term “digital diet,” in which we think about a child’s use of digital media in the same way we think about a healthy diet (Bidgood et al., 2021; Orben, 2021). Technology is comparable to a sugary dessert or candy—it stimulates a quick hit of dopamine and reward, so, the question is, how much sugar should your child be consuming? The answer—it depends. The goal of any healthy diet is balance.

Children’s brains develop as a result of experience (Siegel, 2012)—they need diverse experiences for neural pathways to develop and for learning to occur. So, perhaps an important question to consider is, what experiences are not happening when your child is on a device?

Between recommendations for daily physical activity (one hour; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and sleep (eight to 14 hours, depending on age), coupled with hours dedicated to school, homework, meals, and chores—how much time is left? And out of that time, how much is appropriate for consuming digital media (gaming, scrolling social media, watching shows/videos), and how much should be devoted to other diverse activities and experiences?

When is it OK for my child to start gaming or get on social media?

Another good question---and the answer again is, it depends.

There are a lot of things to consider—like the surgeon general’s recent announcement that 13 was too young for social media, and the growing body of research regarding the potential risks of both social media use and gaming. Before any social media app or game is installed/purchased, parents should do their research—read reviews, look up ratings, check informational websites about the app or game, and learn about the risks and benefits. And remember, what might be appropriate for your 12-year-old may differ from what is appropriate for your neighbor’s 12-year-old.

Amanda Giordano PPT
Amanda Giordano PPT

When it comes to a child’s access to different forms of technology, it might be helpful to think about it on a continuum of access that builds upon itself. For example, perhaps your child starts with access to a phone for voice calls and FaceTime only. Then, with age and a demonstration of maturity, they get access to texting (using a parent’s phone). Then, over time, they get access to select apps and online videos (with parental monitoring apps in place like Bark or Safe Vision). Then, over time, they are able to game (without interacting with strangers, only games with the appropriate ratings, and parental controls in place). Then, they may be able to create a social media account and use messaging apps (with parents having access to all devices for periodic checks). Finally, they may reach a point when they can have access to all functions of a smartphone or another device.

Family Technology Plan

Given that brain maturation continues until about 25 years old (Arain et al., 2013), and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for executive functioning, goal-oriented behavior, self-regulation, and critical thinking) matures last, children and teens need guidance for their technology use. Consider making a family technology plan (there are lots of great examples of these online—check out Common Sense Media) to serve as the guide for acceptable/appropriate behavior. For example, the plan may include:

  • When can devices be used? (e.g., after homework and before dinner)
  • When will devices not be used? (e.g., before school, during meals, right before bed)
  • How long can devices be used before taking a break? (e.g., 30 minutes for internet, one hour for TV)
  • What type of digital media is OK? (e.g., YouTube Kids, exercise videos, etc.)
  • What type of communication is OK? (e.g., only to those known to the child after approval from a parent)
  • What should the child do if they are exposed to harmful content (sexually explicit material, self-injury, bullying, racism, suicidality)? (e.g., bring the device to a parent and show them immediately, have a conversation about what they saw and how they are feeling)
  • Where can technology be used? (e.g., in common spaces in the house, not alone in bedrooms, all devices “sleep” in parents’ room overnight)

In sum, technology isn’t inherently all good or all bad. Instead, there are potential benefits and potential risks to its use. Parents must assess what is developmentally appropriate for their child, and to do this, they must be informed about potential dangers and potential positive outcomes of the specific digital media being consumed. It may seem like a daunting task—but with all of the information available online, parental controls, monitoring apps, scholarly research, and parenting groups, it is certainly possible. You can parent well in this digital age.


Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., Sandhu, R., & Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449-461.

Bidgood, A., Taylor, G., Kolak, J., Bent, E. M., & Hickman, N. (2021). A balanced digital diet for under 5s: A commentary on Orben (2021). Infant and Child Development, 31, 1-6.

Orben, A. (2021). Digital diet: A 21st century approach to understanding digital technologies and development. Infant and Child Development, 31, 1-6.

Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

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