Parents, Kids & The Digital Shift: Strategies for a Balanced Media Diet

| November 26, 2012 | 8 Comments

 This guest post is brought to you in collaboration with Lorraine Akemann of Moms With AppsThis is Part 1 of a 2 part post … the 2nd part will appear in the blog in December of 2012.

From Lorraine, “Carisa and I have both been blogging about family-friendly apps since 2009. We realized through our friendship and conversations, that contrary to what the public might think, media habits in our own homes are actually quite conservative. By immersing ourselves in tech culture, we are gaining enough ‘digital literacy’ to make media plans for our own kids. We hope that by sharing our own stories, we can learn more about your stories, and create a collective view about healthy media habits for families.”

Through our discussions, we found ourselves contemplating similar questions, like, “How much screentime is too much?” This turned out to be a key issue on both our minds, as we navigate family life. There is a balance between exposing children to technology, and keeping technology at bay … so trade-offs aren’t made with other aspects of a child’s development.

Below, you’ll find some of the techniques that we’ve identified, with data from our survey. We did this ‘quick study’ with 100 parents recruited from high-tech households in our social media fan base for Digital-Storytime & MomsWithApps. The purpose of the survey was to take a the ‘temperature’ of other families trying to balance media use for their kids, to see how our list stacked up against techniques being used by other families. Note: We focused primarily on ‘leisure time’ or ‘free time’ use of visual media or ‘screen time’ by kids, excluding all curricular & extra-curricular use of media devices for learning in a school/homework or homeschool environment (as well as use of screens for communication or other ‘acts of daily living’ for children with learning disabilities). We also gathered a lot of qualitative comments that we’ll present in the the 2nd post, regarding advice from parents about how to manage screen time & ideas for the larger community.

Strategies for Maintaining Balance:

Monitoring vs Modeling?

Among the most important questions we asked the survey respondents, was to indicate which ‘strategies’ they used to keep leisure or ‘free time’ media & screen time in balance with other activities for kids. We based this part of the survey on a list Lorraine & I created in our email discussions about our own households. One of the most interesting aspects of this data is the reliance on ‘monitoring’ as the most popular strategy and an acknowledgement that ‘modeling’ is the most difficult or least popular strategy (showing how hard it is for adults to balance media in a healthy way for the kids that look up to them).

Without further ado … here is the raw data about the different techniques we identified and descriptions of each of the techniques we found useful in our own, media saturated households:

1. Media Limits – The default setting for screens in the home is OFF, and the decision to “turn it on” is made consciously, with a goal, and for a set period of time. In Lorraine’s house, screen time for television is 30 minutes per day (usually after school to unwind), zero for iDevices unless there is a learning objective, and exceptions are made for travel and long trips. In Carisa’s house school days involve no ‘leisure’ media but book apps are allowed every night at bedtime before several print books. Weekends include no more than 2 hours, usually ‘earned’ from doing chores or homework.

2. Modeling – To set a good example, we need to watch our own media habits. We realize that if we are distracted and consumed with technology, our children will not only seek to mirror our behavior, but will also lose what they need most: our attention and personal interaction. This was one of the most difficult strategies to implement consistently in our tech saturated lives as moms working in high tech.

3. Curation – We preview content before it is made available in the home. This includes watching the TV show, playing the app, or understanding the privacy settings of the website. One advantage of being involved with kids apps for both households was the opportunity to screen and select the most appropriate, engaging and ‘nutritious’ media because we are exposed to a lot of it during our ‘work day’.

4. Physical Access – Devices, computers and televisions are hard to find. In Carisa’s house, there is no TV. In Lorraine’s house, there is no family workstation. If the children use a screen, Carisa needs to facilitate a custom solution, and Lorraine needs to drag out the laptop from the shelf. Temptation for being “always on” is limited simply because the technology is hard to get.

5. House Rules – If all family members know and understand the expectations of media use in the home, then battles and negotiations are curbed because the norms become accepted. When a rule needs to be adjusted, a family meeting can help update the rules for the associated ages and stages.

6. Exceptions vs. Consistency – Life gets messy, and we need to give ourselves room to experiment. Sometimes an exception can “save the day”. On the contrary, too many exceptions can undermine the consistency you are trying to build. Upon considering an exception, like an extra movie on a long trip, Lorraine states loud and clear that the extra screentime is an exception so there is no whining after the fact. With Carisa’s household, media limits are set in a tone that is both firm & warm, something she calls ‘firmth’ based on her mentor, Dr. Michael Carrera, from the Children’s Aid Society.

7. Development & Temperament – Every child is different, in personality and interest in digital media as well as stage of development. As Carisa’s child has grown, the rules have adjusted based on what he is learning and amount of ‘free’ time he has available after school and sports. As her son becomes a more fluid reader, there are more library books in the home he can read anytime, but more limits with digital books since he will often prefer the ‘read to me’ mode. Special needs for each child and different developmental needs based on age and a child’s temperament are critical for this strategy.

8. Differentiation – Not all media is equal. For Carisa, her child’s use of digital games is strictly limited, but educational apps like the TeachMe series, and other math and literacy apps, are allowed on the weekends with a  ’30 min of edapp = 15 min free play” (approved games I download as I curate my deal page). As we do this, we teach the idea of ‘nutritious’ or ‘good for you’ media with ‘leisure’ or ‘just for fun’ media, just like we teach our son how to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy food choices. If you eat a good dinner, it’s okay to have a slice of cake in a balanced diet, but just eating cake or using too much ‘leisure-time’ media, can make you feel bad and hurts your brain like bad food hurts your body, if not eaten in moderation.

* Note about Advertising: One of the most important aspects of differentiation is removing as much of the ad exposure during children’s media as possible. We may preview a TV show, but we cannot pre-approve all of the advertising that might be included during that 30 min program. Teaching older children how to skip ads and to be savvy about media messages is also very useful, but for the youngest children, under age 8 in particular, we recommend reducing ads as a strategy for better media ‘nutrition’.

9. Lots of Books – Have books, read books, check out books, and get excited about books. Both of our homes embraced reading from very early ages, and now we are thankful to have children who enjoy it so much that they choose it consistently as a favorite activity. In Carisa’s household, she worried that having ‘read to me’ titles might sour her learner-reader on simple print books, but just the opposite has occurred, making graphic novels and chapter books intriguing as his reading skills improve.

10. Keep Learning – If we hadn’t become social media junkies ourselves, we never would have learned what a healthy media habit felt like. By diving in, we have been able to experience the costs and the benefits of being hyperconnected. It’s interesting to witness our personal strategies for navigating the technology, sometimes getting burned, and learning to set boundaries along the way. It’s a constant process, but we are feeling confident that when our kids turn into teenagers and establish their online identities – they are going to have some mega-charged moms who know their way around the web. There is no shame in being a newbie to new tech, only shame in being unwilling to see and value the world our kids will inhabit as part of this new social media and high tech landscape.

No media diet is perfect. It is in flux as we all grow and change and the media landscape itself changes. Once a media plan is in place, we recommend that parents check in and observe their child. Are they talking about video games & other media instead of other types of conversation? Are they choosing media activities over social interactions? For example, when Carisa finds that her son’s interests are starting to revolve around digital media of any sort, they adjust their plan to include less media and more attention from parents directly. How do you adjust and manage your digital media diet for your family?

Full Survey Results –

Conducted in November 2012 with 100 respondents from high tech households with kids: 

Basic Regional Demographics – 100 Respondents

% Parents/Guarians vs. Educators/Therapists vs Content Creators (with overlap)


Some of the comments we’d like to share about additional strategies families found useful in balancing their media use:

“Embrace active screen time as a learning opportunity :-)”

“haha We should be using all of them, but the ones we DO enforce are what I have checked. hadn’t thought about the FEEDBACK one very specifically, but with the new Star Wars Angry Birds it is becoming an issue.”

“Now, I’m a therapist and my kids are grown, but I always practiced having a balance and being a role model for not engaging in tv/computer time”

“Trying to be outside as much as possible helps : beach, parks…”

“Spending time with my son while he uses iPad for therapy does not count toward his ‘allotment of screen time'”

“Sometimes we set a rule that our 7yo cannot use his iPad unless he cleans his room entirely. He does neither and goes outside to play which is fine..and he doesn’t nag about it because he knows the options.”

“Again – educational or therapeutic (my child practices sounds with some amazing speech therapy apps and Apraxia apps) are not considered the same type of screen time as watching you tube music videos for example.”

“use of the educational software does not bother me as much as other media. My son is on a schedule as well. He knows when media is turned off, and what social situations it will not be allowed. Even with special needs, he accepts that.”

“bad weather, long journeys, sick children … screentime gets longer! Depends on so many things!”

“we don’t limit when it comes to communication…”

“By far the strategy we use most often in our household is ‘alternatives.’ Since our children are older, we also use family dinner times as opportunities to discuss topics like concerns about some aspects of media, screen time, and the digital age.”

“We do not use anything other than educational media. The only non-academic apps or shows are book related and the child reads the paper books first!”

“I’m fine with screen time, prefer computer over TV, as long as they get adequate exercise, preferably outside.”

What comments would you add?

Category: All About Apps, Guest Posts, iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift, Our House, Welcome/About

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.

Comments (8)

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  1. john e says:

    Back 7 years ago when my kids were small and technology was what it was, the rules were simple:
    – no TV watching. Period. We watched movies together as a group but they were movies that started and ended. No sitting in front of the tube channel surfing. In fact, I didn’t have cable for years.
    – the game system was only allowed to be used for multi-player games. No single player games allowed.
    Today, the kids and technology are more complicated. Plus my new wife tends to watch a lot of TV. Here’s my rules:
    – all TVs and game machines are in public places
    – no texting or games at meal times
    – all kids give me 100% access to their Facebook account and email, including logins. I make a point of reading and discussing some of it with them. I discourage any sense that the digital realm is private.

  2. Pierre Abel says:

    Nice article!

    Some feedback about what’s happening in my family:

    In our family, there is no restriction at all – kids can choose what they want to do if it doesn’t bother another person – and our kids (6 and 9) have access to all screens types described in your articles (I’m a app developer by the way). We believe that modeling and providing all kinds of activities are very important. Activities include going out (park,museum,…) but also providing a lot of activities/games that does not include screen (eg my girls are currently playing a kind of lego – so without screen) We have to try a lot of different games/activities to find what they really love to do (it’s little bit like apps – there will be only a few apps that your kids will love to do). At the end of the day, we try to not differentiate screen based activities from other activities. Everything is an activity and they can choose what they want to do.

    By the way, we are a homeschooling family (my wife takes care of the children most of the day), and so there is a lot of free time… The current status is that my kids use a lot the iPads (and also the 9 year old is currently playing a lot to minecraft online with homeschooled friends – bundled with skype to talk )

    My 9 year old is reading a lot of printed books – but doesn’t like to read book on screen. The 6 year old really likes all all activities that involve building/creating something but not yet a lot interested in reading… They also play a lot together to create stories (OK you know that, all kids are creating stories all the time)

    They almost never watch broadcasted TV (perhaps 1 time a month) – they watch only DVD or streamed videos. However, I could not really tell you what is the percentage for screen based activities because they do a lot of things. What I can see is that there is a kind of pattern that emerge : there are some kind of waves of activities. For example , for a week they will play extensively to a construction game or an app and then they will almost stop and go to another activities – I also remember one week when the younger one was watching a lot of pokemon videos episodes every day, it was like she was fascinated by pokemon videos, and then it stopped.

  3. cen campbell says:

    It’s so funny that you just posted this. Great article! I just wrote a piece about our media consumption at home vs my professional expertise too.

  4. Alesha says:

    Great topic and article. Thanks for pulling this together.

    How do you guys manage apps that have In app purchases? are they banned or is there an age you think that they are appropriate?
    Do you think it is the app developers responsibility to call out a free app that has in-app purchases? Or do you think Apple needs to add a third category for Free with IAP?

    We avoid all advertising in our house – outbound and inbound. Of course we can’t do that 100% but we try to avoid it as much as possible.

    It’s getting harder to do as kids gets older and are exposed to media outside of the home.

    • Great question, Alesha. I’m not sure about Lorraine’s household, but I’ve trained my son to avoid all in app purchases (IAP) if he encounters them in an app. He summed up my philosophy once by saying, “If a question pops up at any time in an app, the answer is always ‘no’.”

      We have never had an issue with unintended IAP, but I also avoid apps like this as much as possible. I’m also careful about not handing an iPad over to any child right after entering my password for iTunes. When we have other kids over, I often set every device to ‘airplane’ mode, in fact, which conveniently disables most ad networks in any free ad-supported apps that might have slipped through my filter.

  5. Karen says:

    Terrific article and comments.

    I especially like John’s comment about making sure his kids realize that their social media is not private because he can access it at any time. This would help remind kids that ANYTHING posted in social media is not private.

    I heard suggestions before about telling kids that social media posts are the same as posting a message in a presentation given at their school assembly, on a lamp post on any public street or broadcasting their message on TV. But framing the discussion as “your parent will see every post you make” could be more powerful in reminding them to respect themselves by watching what they post!

    • So true! I really think kids should consider posts on-line as potentially being like something you say in the middle of a public square, or at least a conversation in a public space that might be ‘over heard’. Of course, having everything in writing also makes these conversations easy to copy & paste, so it might even be more accurate to imagine it as a post on a public bulletin board. Maybe no one is reading, but then again, maybe everyone is reading and quoting you … you never know, so you should assume you are speaking to a large audience.

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