How Much Digital Media is Too Much?

If Norman Rockwell were painting a picture of today’s family, the dad would be on a Samsung Galaxy watching a soccer game, mom would be checking her Facebook on an iPad, the little girl would be playing a Disney Princess game on her Kindle Fire, and the older brother would be on his Nintendo 3DS immersed in all things Pokémon.

Of course chances are mom or dad might not be in the picture because they were separated or they might be Skyping each other because they are working in different cities – but you get the idea. Today smartphones and tablets are as commonplace in homes as TV sets, toasters, and the kitchen sink were to previous generations.

While there are varying opinions about the best use of this digital technology with our children, the one thing we know for sure is this: we are in the midst of a great experiment. No one knows how the use of techgear and digital media is affecting the mental and social development of iKids, the generation born since 2000.

So as a parent or grandparent, what should you do when it comes your children’s digital life? Here are three things for you to consider:

  1. How much is too much?A partial answer to this question is related to how old your child is. Before age 2, its recommended that digital media, including TV, be kept to a minimum as infants cannot distinguish between real life and what is seen on a screen. By age 4 the amount of time learning to read books will have a huge impact on academic performance when they are teens. At age 8, children develop digital expertise as their reading level coincides with the physical ability to manipulate all those buttons on game controllers.   At age 13, a child’s brain goes into its most important phase of development as it creates connections that will last a lifetime.So while the appeal of playing a game or watching TV can be very strong, time spent on techgear is time not being spent reading, praying, playing outside, or interacting with another human being face-to-face. It’s these non-digital activities that teach deep reasoning skills, emotional bonding, and spiritual values.
  2. How are you developing the informal education in your home?What happens at school and the homework that is connected to class time is the formal education that every child must do. What a parent or grandparent is responsible for is everything else – the informal education. A trip to a museum or the zoo, a walk in a park, reading a book aloud to each other, playing on a team, worshiping at church, singing in a choir, and memorizing the Lord’s Prayer is as formative to a child as their school work.In the digital world we now inhabit more and more schools are incorporating computers and tablets into the school day. So if your child has been on a computer or tablet at school for most of the day and then comes home and watches TV or plays a video game – they will soon be overloaded with digital media. So a key role for the adult in the house is to find the balance between screen time and everything else a child could be doing.
  3. How much are you on your techgear when you child is with you?A recent study by CrowdTap found that Millennials (born from 1992 to 1999) spend an average of 18 hours a day on digital devices. Which means other than sleeping, digital media is an all-pervasive presence in the lives of young adults. The one complaint researchers are hearing from children about their parents is their parents would much rather be on their smartphones then talking with them.   So part of balancing family life is looking at how we are modeling the use of our own devices with our children.

While it is easy to become overwhelmed by the possibilities the digital world promises, parents have the opportunity to bring balance into their children’s lives. So while its fun to play Mario Cart 8 with your iKid, you also might let your child catch you reading a book. More importantly, find times to work on face-to-face communication, like eating dinner without the TV on or smartphones in your hands. Or play a board game or cook a meal together. Even if your iKid is 14, you might go back to that old habit of saying a prayer together before bedtime – maybe not every night, but enough to remind your child that God is still involved in your lives.