Parenting in the Digital Age: Teaching Kids to Balance Their Own Media Diet

| March 7, 2014 | 1 Comment

Over the past two years, I have begun to transition away from full-time work on my book app review site,, in order to work on more outreach and training projects, especially within the public libraries in California. I have also done a number of presentations to parents, educators and content creators in the past year, as well as talking to many families about their challenges and questions regarding ‘screen time’, tablets, educational apps, eReaders, eBooks vs print for kids and more.

The challenge I have heard about, over and over from parents, grandparents and other caregivers is around screen time decision-making. Families report finding themselves in a constant power struggle with their children over setting appropriate limits. This is especially true for the parents of boys that I have spoken to, with many noting that their daughters are more able to internalize the message about balance while their sons seem to need external pressure to turn-away from the screen. I have seen this struggle with kids across gender and age lines and it seems to come up for every family I talk to at some point or another when new media is discussed. And ultimately this is a familiar parenting issue with many parallels to other areas of life. As parents we are tasked with setting limits on many things, from sugar-intake to rough-housing to rules for borrowing the car.

But setting limits on media consumption, especially in light of so many new media devices, seems to be increasingly difficult in the 21st century. According to recent research, it looks like tablets may be creating a whole new level of challenge for families, with news headlines like, “Researchers find children play with touchscreens more than traditional toys“. The television battles of my generation begin to look quaint and old-fashioned in this light. So what do we use as a parenting road map? How do we make meaningful decisions for our own children and even more importantly, how do we teach our children how to manage their own media diets as they grow older, especially when adults seem to be as bad (or worse) at media ‘dieting’ themselves?

Families often mention the very influential rules from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which recommend absolutely no screen ‘entertainment’ media for under age two and no more than two hours a day as kids get older. Despite the good intentions of such guidelines, they seem to function more as a yard-stick for parental guilt rather than a useful way to manage family life.

I often complain about how arbitrary it is to try to measure a healthy media diet with a clock. It is as useful as using a scale to measure a healthy food diet; it gives you a rough measure, but ultimately it isn’t the weight or even calories, but what’s in the food that matters most. Media is no different in my appraisal. However, it is all well and good for me to criticize this cultural emphasis on screen time, but not very helpful if I don’t offer a real alternative. I have resisted coming up with a trite or quick and dirty litmus test for screen time because it seems so individual and impossible to quantify.

Then one day I realized that if I could articulate my concern about ‘balance’ for my own family in a way that even my seven year-old could understand and apply to novel situations, then I might have a model I could truly offer to other people. So, with the help of my family, I have been testing out a simple set of three questions to ask before approving screen time for kids (and adults if they are willing to be good models). It’s a plan that parents and children can discuss and use together, involves only a few simple questions, plus it is individualized to the family and context.

There are a lot of great models out there that I have seen for achieving a healthy media diet, but so far this one is the most useful for my own family. My son, age seven, understands this tool now well enough to apply it to his own requests for media in our home before asking one of his parents. When he does ask for media, he now begins with, “I know the answer is probably no, because the triangle had only one yes, but …” So, without further ado, here is the model I created, shared with my own family and tested out for a couple weeks:

Screen Time Decision-Making Model for Families

BALANCE is at the top, precarious but stable at the edge of the triangle. At the bottom, the foundation of good screen time decision-making is anchored by two challenges every media experience for kids needs to tackle, QUALITY (of content) and ENGAGEMENT (with others). Copyright 2014

This model is super-simple and meant to be a guide, not a rule. Every family should be empowered to create their own best idea of balance when it comes to media, but having some guidelines seems to take a lot of the anxiety out of getting started. Balance, in fact, is the one element I found missing in other models, especially those used for training professionals about new media. But for parents and caregivers, balance is the most essential and ‘top of mind’ concern when I talk to them about a ‘media diet’ for their kids or even themselves.


For BALANCE we consider things like:

  • Does this media balance out with other activities (day/week)?
  • Have we been on a media-binge lately or is this a break from another type of activity, has media obsession been an issue lately or are we expecting a lot of media tomorrow or later today, etc?
  • Note: What balance looks like for any child can change with the context, like whether it’s a weekend, how much homework the child might have, the child’s age and temperament, etc.


For QUALITY we consider things like:

  • Is the media source high-quality, educational or meaningful in some way?
  • Is this among the best media offerings on this topic?
  • Will you learn something important from this media?
  • Can you learn it any other way? Is this the best way to learn?


Last, but certainly not least, we ask if the media experience will encourage or enhance real-life engagement with other people.

For ENGAGEMENT we consider things like:

  • Will this media enhance a relationship with a friend or family member, help bond a peer group or otherwise build togetherness with other real people in life?
  • Will it connect you to someone far away or expand your social world in important ways?
  • Are there any better ways to be together? Alternatives or ways to connect to other activities?

In addition, we ONLY use this model when a caregiver (in our case, mom, dad or maybe a grandparent) is wavering or feeling torn about whether to say “yes or no” to a request for media (Wii, DVDs, Netflix/Hulu, iPad/Nexus, etc.). Then we turn it over to our son, and begin to assess the request using the three corners of this triangle.

If all three questions can be answered with a resounding “yes” – media is in balance, high-quality and involves other people – then the answer is almost always “yes”. If one or fewer corners is “yes” – the answer is usually no. If two corners are “yes”, then it’s a “maybe” answer.

And we work from there to find an activity that everyone can be at least a little happy about, even when the first choice is not acceptable. Sometimes we suggest alternative media options or alternatives that are media-free. Sometimes we agree to time-limited media if a balanced activity can be paired with it … like watching cooking videos and then actually cooking something. Life is a moving target and we are moving right alongside new media, as best as we can!

Category: iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift, Our House

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.