A Secret to Digital—and Non-Digital—Parenting

A simple analogy helps understand digital technology in child-rearing.

Posted Feb 21, 2019

By now, many of us have heard the cautions about digital technology for our children. Studies find that it is associated with obesity, aggressive behavior, disruptions to sleep, attention problems, and poor academic performance. Yet, as most parents know well, it is difficult to keep children away from screens altogether. Meanwhile, with computing skills becoming an increasing element of knowledge work, we also want our children to learn digital literacy and programming skills. These competing concerns put parents in a bind: Do we want to encourage more digital device use by our children or not?

Like many such questions, the best answer is not either/or. Meaningful engagement with technology requires careful navigation between the extremes of teetotaler non-use and destructive overuse. In its latest recommendations for children and media, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers 13 suggestions starting with the creation of a “media use plan.” The non-profit Common Sense Media offers detailed reviews of digital products – movies, apps, educational games, etc. – and their value to children’s growth.

Advice from such organizations are worthwhile, to be sure, and those of us who can spend the time to digest them will certainly benefit. But, what about for those of us who don’t have the time? Is there an easy way to think about these things that doesn’t require us to become experts at digital childrearing?

Based on my own research with educational technology and experience as a parent, I find that a simple analogy fits the bill: With respect to children, think of digital devices as buffet dinners. Like the broad range of food on offer at a smorgasbord, digital technology offers a broad range of activities. At one end, there are proteins and vegetables that are nutritious and good for health; at the other end are desserts and condiments that taste good but which can be harmful to health; and sometimes, there are items like alcohol that shouldn’t be consumed by children. Overconsumption can be bad even with the healthful items, but a complete ban on buffet dinners, while not necessarily outright negative, might mean passing up opportunities for good nutrition.

This analogy results in practical guidance for how parents can think about digital consumption for their children. For example…

  • Leaving children alone with digital technology is like leaving children alone at a buffet. Doing so every day for extended amounts of time without adult supervision is not a good idea.
  • On the other hand, the occasional video or game isn't going to cause permanent harm, any more than the occasional sweet. Small amounts of either could be convenient as bribes for other growth-supporting activities (e.g., practicing the violin), but the use of bribes themselves must be carefully considered so as to encourage intrinsic motivation. And, some screen time scaffolded with rules might be a way to help teach self-control, just as the responsible consumption of candy.
  • Parents are likely to differ about what are appropriate levels of digital entertainment – some parents may ban it until the children are out of the house; others may feel daily exposure is OK. Some parents prohibit all refined sugar for their children; others allow their children to have ice cream every day.
  • Most families have rules about when and where food can be consumed; the same should be true of digital media.
  • When children start behaving in ways that seem outside the norm for their age, it could be cause for concern: Secret device habits are worth investigating as much as secret food habits. Device-related emotional behavior could be as much a clue to other problems as food-related emotional behavior. Obsession with a single app, game, or social media platform could be the sign of something else, just as overly obsessive diet habits; on the other hand, some things are just phases!
  • For very young children, there is very little that digital technology offers. Very young children similarly need something other than adult food.
  • To what extent can children use technology for meaningful ends on their own? It depends on their age, personality, and existing habits. Younger children require more monitoring and rules; older children can be trusted with more autonomy. But, ongoing monitoring is required throughout, because until they’re adults, they could slip into bad habits that are easier to correct if detected sooner than later.
  • Whether for technology or for food, the search for balance – between setting limits and providing autonomy – is ongoing. Because the optimal point will keep shifting as children mature, parents need to keep experimenting to maintain a good balance: As children arrive at a new level of maturity they could be given a little more autonomy, but if they go beyond what seems appropriate, old rules may need to be reinforced. All the while, parents should know that the “perfect” balance is difficult to achieve, and that occasional slips in either direction rarely have permanent consequences. What matters is the ongoing attention to balance.

In the end, there is no magic formula for good parenting in a world of digital technology, any more than there is a magic formula for getting children to eat well. But, the inclinations of wise parents—careful thought, ongoing attention, and a balance between extremes—works for digital as much as it does with other aspects of childrearing.