What is a “Digital Media Diet”?

Naming a blog isn’t easy. Neither is parenting or dieting for that matter. And “the digital media diet” … well, now I really have my hands full!

So let’s break it down a bit. First off … what is ‘digital media’? Well, this is a fancy term for screen time. It basically refers to all the time we spend in front of ‘screens’, like TV’s, computers, video game systems, mobile devices (smart phones, iPods, iPads, etc.) and probably something else with a screen that I haven’t thought of or that will be invented five minutes after I publish this post.

Next we have the idea of a ‘diet’ as a way to conceptualize our consumption of media. The definition of a ‘food diet’ can refer either to a restricted diet or just mean ‘everything we eat’. Even if someone just ate candy all day – that’s still a ‘diet’, technically speaking, just not a very good one. So, whether we have given it any thought or not, we all have a ‘digital media diet’. The question then becomes, “What does this ‘diet’ consist of and is it ‘good’ for us?”

Is there even an equivalent of ‘eating candy all day’ for a digital media diet? Well, it’s not as scientific as a food diet. Obviously there are no Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA’s) for media – you CAN live without it, even if it doesn’t seem like it some days. This means, as parents, we have a lot of responsibilities without a lot of useful information to guide us. Not that this is a new situation for parenting in general, but it is confusing.

And the last time I checked, parents were also human, so we are equally drawn into our own excesses of screen time. This digital age is new for us, too, and often very appealing. All this ‘screen time’ can really add up, though. While researching this post I found averages for the typical American listed at around 9 hours of screen time a day, for 13-74 year olds. Does this seem excessive? That’s more than half a person’s waking hours spent in front of a screen, but it’s just the average. For everyone reading this and thinking, “But my screen time is a lot less than that,” there are others out there who are spending even more time glued to a digital device. And the irony is, I am pointing this out by asking you to read my blog on a screen.

Is there even a recommendation for how much media we should consume as adults? I haven’t found anything useful, except the general idea that moderation is a good thing. This sounds like good advice, but what can you really do with it, practically-speaking? Even if a balanced ‘digital media diet’ sounds like a good idea for the whole family, how do parents make it stick? How do they decide what is the most ‘nutritious’ media? And how can they model moderation while raising kids in this new digital age?

Many sources encourage no more than 2 hours a day for kids over the age two (and none at all for kids under age 2). But a recent study shows that even kids under the age of five are getting a lot more screen time that this recommendation, averaging 4-6 hours a day. As a parent myself, I can really appreciate how hard it is to navigate this sea of tempting digital media. Not that parents need any additional guilt-trips about this, but I do think there is real cause for concern, especially as the digital media buffet seems to get more varied and tasty-looking every year.

So what do we do about this digital media overload? First of all, we need to be honest with ourselves about the role of digital media in our own lives. The best way to start this process is to just record your family’s ‘screen time’ for a short period – like a typical week. I’d suggest keeping a ‘digital media’ diary for yourself, your child or your family. It’s a great place to start and what you find out may surprise you. Plus it’s a lot less stressful to get started on any diet this way. Try it with the adults in your home first and then the kids. The goal would be to gradually move ourselves toward more conscious choices and more awareness of how well we are guiding our children toward a balance between media and all the other activities of daily life.

For some resources to consider, take a look at Wired.com’s ‘media diet’ in pyramid form, just like the popular ‘food pyramid’. This pyramid assumes a daily media diet for an adult is 9 hours, the average ‘screen time’ for Americans. And while this may seem excessive, I would suggest starting with the idea of balancing the screen time you already have in your daily life before trying to change it in any dramatic way. Another resource I like for parents is from Common Sense Media, a group “dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.”

I will be working on this issue in my own home, exploring the questions I have as a parent, with research links, articles I like and eventually a chance to influence media developers, like my husband, to create the kinds of digital apps and other media that will enhance our lives not detract from them. It won’t be easy, but there is no turning back unless we want to watch our children swim in this sea of media without our guidance. While I don’t expect to be able to ‘lead’ my child in this digital age, I do hope we can go hand-in-hand, exploring this world together.

And perhaps as parents (and others who care about kids), we can teach each other and learn from our successes and failures. Just like any other task in parenting, it will not be without its humbling moments, I’m sure, but I look forward to writing, researching and learning from all of you out there reading. And thank you for reading … for making the time to share a digital meal with me.