A vitamin rich media diet helps protect your child online
It may be the season to overeat, but it turns out that it’s not just calories that will be consumed over the holidays. There’s also the issue of additional screen time. Before you decide on the amount of holiday hours you’ll be allocating to your kids, it’s critical to understand that not all screen-time calories are created equal.
“Time is just one metric, but it’s not the only one,” says Chip Donohue, Director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at Erikson Institute. “It’s also incredibly important to consider the content. Some screen time is mindless junk food; some can be very beneficial. It’s not just the overall aggregate of minutes or hours that parents need to be aware of.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Dave Eisenmann, director of Instructional Technology & Media Services for Minnetonka Public Schools. “Parents need to look beyond the two hours a day recommended by the AAP and start thinking about it in different terms: How much of my kid’s screen time is interactive, how much is social and furthering relationships versus how much is passively sitting back and watching something or playing mindless games?”
Media diet building blocks: empty vs. nutritious digital calories
How exactly does a parent differentiate between empty and nutritious digital calories? Eisenmann distinguishes between educational and entertainment screen time. Even so, he points out that not all gaming is created equally. “Don’t lump all video games into the mindless category. The most sugary of these types of screen time would be watching other kids playing a video game on YouTube, or maybe playing something like Temple Run where it’s mostly tapping on your screen and not much critical thinking,” says the father of four. “There are other types of games where there may be online networking, team playing, something like Minecraft or apps like Words With Friends. I rate these as more nutritious than games played on your own,” he says.
Janell Burley Hofmann is also hesitant to group all gaming into junk-food status. “It’s hard to say all gaming is digital dessert,” says the mother of five and author/speaker/consultant. “I feel really differently about learning, creative or age appropriate games than I do about first-person shooter games without parental controls or boundaries. Even if we are going to define some screen time as ‘dessert,’ many families still may want to opt for quality treats – ones that might be homemade or not so processed.”
For Donahue, the key distinction comes between screen time that focuses on creating instead of simply consuming. “Optimally we’d like ratio of time that we spend as media creators to go up,” he says. “We have the tools to code, to be makers, to take photos to tell a story. That should go up.”
Media diet 101: shared vs. isolated screen time
While social media may be making most of the headlines when it comes to dangerous online activities, most screen time experts agree that isolated, violent video gaming, as opposed to non-violent gaming within a community, is one form of screen time to be minimized, if not avoided altogether. “Friends and your connections with others are important at all stages of life, especially in those teen years,” says Eisenmann. “I’d rather have kids interacting with each other on social media rather than alone with a video screen.”
“Doing Just Dance with your family and friends or competing against a friend in [a video game] are fun ways to interact with one another on the screen,” says Eisenmann. “You’re talking and being social.”
Among family members, shared screen time can be especially beneficial. Researchers at the Arizona State University discovered that parents and kids sharing the video game experience cultivated greater family bonding, learning and well-being. Other studies show that playing non-violent video games together is especially beneficial to girls. Researchers at Brigham Young University studied more than 280 families and discovered that girls aged 11-16 had a greater sense of connection to parents as well as improved mental health when they co-played video games with mom and dad.
The importance of online behavior
Lori Getz says that assigning apps and websites with specific nutritional values isn’t as meaningful as focusing on online behaviors. “With something like social media, you can have amazingly positive interactions, or you can have really horrible ones,” says the Internet safety expert and author of The Tech Savvy User’s Guide to the Digital World. “What’s more useful to parents is to focus on the kind of behaviors online. Sharing, communicating positively, skill building, these are all activities that can be used with different kinds of technology,” she says.
Optimizing your child’s media diet: high-nutrition online activities
“I try to encourage people to focus on technology that isn’t replacing another activity. For example, the G Suite [Google products such as Google Docs and Google Slides] are transformative in nature because they allow you to collaborate, gather and curate material for yourself, create and share material,” says Getz. “That would all be much more difficult to do without technology. It would require being in the same room to work on a document in real time, going to multiple libraries and bookstores to gather the information and a whole lot of poster board.” And as for educational apps such as math flashcards? “The research is all over the place with gaming and if it increases learning. My point is that it may or may not. If flashcards are working, stick with that. But we don’t need to increase the amount of screen time if it’s not more useful in these situations.”
All things in moderation
“I think it’s important to hear the message: We all zone out in front of the TV at the end of the day. It’s not the end of the world,” says Donahue. “It is about balance. A little Candy Crush is going to be just fine as long as the media diet also includes some nutritious media.”
“It’s the 80-20 rule,” says Burley Hofmann. “If we’re feeding kids healthfully most of the time, then it doesn’t feel so tense or anxious when they’re having that sugary screen-time. I also allow for a weekly sugar binge. My guidelines for the house in general: We don’t play video games during the week or YouTube unless it’s a recipe, learning or DIY. Then we have tech Fridays and they’ll lunge and veg on their screens. It’s a break for all of us to unwind.”