Here’s a new way to think about kids and screen time – compare it to the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of food nutrients and measure it by more than just a single metric of time.

You would not expect a 5 year old child to have the same energy intake from food as a teenager, so it’s outdated and inaccurate to think that a 12 or even 15 year old would have the same RDI of screen-time.

The screen-time ‘how much is too much’ debate is hotting up as more (1) and more (2) research is conducted into how much time young, developing minds should be ‘allowed’ to look at and interact with their (generally internet enabled) devices each day.

Again, taking the food analogy (which is pretty much the whole premise of Digital Nutrition and hopefully why it will make sense to so many people, given such public awareness has gone into healthy eating in recent decades) we don't just look at the daily calorie intake of humans, we look at the complex combinations of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins and carbohydrates in different food sources which provide optimal functioning for our bodies.

Similarly our online consumption of meals and snacks (which comes in flavours called social media, gaming, videos, information and apps etc.) can be viewed as having a varying nutrient content which impacts our wellbeing in various ways (both positively and negatively, depending on what you’re ‘screen-time diet’ is comprised of).

Without simplifying online activities as being ‘good’ and ‘bad’, it is increasingly important to recognize that sometimes people develop relationships with ‘online food’ that can be dysfunctional and damaging (not just in terms of the quantity of what they consume but also the type). An online diet of a 9 year old which comprises just 2 hours a day of a Candy Crush style games (simple and repetitious) cannot be seen as ‘good’ or ‘better’ compared to that of a 16 year old who is doing a range of high-level learning activities for 7 hours a day.

There are online activities which are empty calories and contribute little to our overall health (both of our brain and of our mind) and there are some applications of technology which could be considered ‘superfoods’ for the positive impact they have when consumed in moderation.

A daily ‘dosage’ of time online doesn't make sense.

And that’s before we even start to consider the different ways that teachers are able to employ technology effectively in classrooms. While some year 10 classes might still only be using computers for typing word documents elsewhere a teacher like @Waginksi might have ‘used up’ his 2 hours of screen-time with his K-1 class by recess doing PBL activities.

You can’t compare a cheeseburger to a green smoothie based on weight, so in a rich technological world with increasing connectivity and ubiquity of devices, you cant compare a basic metric of time online without looking at the quality of what we are actually doing online.

The issue then becomes coming up with a way of quantifying and assessing the nutritional value contained in different online and technology-enabled activities. Distinguishing leisure from learning is not only difficult in an era where the two are regularly enmeshed via gamification and new pedagogical approaches to teaching (where information provision is no longer the currency that a teacher has to trade). This is the hard bit, where all sorts of arguments will be had as organisations invested in people developing online obesity and dependence will lobby against any sort of product labeling some technological activities as less nutritious than others.

Just as for every person that tells you a glass of red wine is good to protect against heart disease there is one who will tell you it can cause cancer, for every Baroness who claims your smartphone is making you a stressed out narcissistic zombie there is another researcher who can show the benefits of playing MMOGs on cognition and problem solving.

Smart, mindful design principles in apps, games and for devices are the best way to avoid notions that technology is a toxin from which we need to detox. Again, rolling with food adages – we know that fad dieting and overall detoxes don't create long lasting changes in health and wellbeing (the create yoyo effects, senses of failure and a boom in pseudo-science). Unfortunately short periods of digital deprivation don't have the impact that the 5:2 diet claims on weight loss. Sure, they bring momentary awareness to the issues (it's a start), but generally it leads to binging and secretive midnight feasting in a bid to keep our consumption appearing healthy and controlled to others. What we’d benefit from are principles of Digital Nutrition, ways to develop a balanced online and technology diet which supports us individually, based on our developmental and lifestyle needs.

This is not to say that the Internet or technology is addictive or requires restrictions. Its use for some people is not without problems but whether it is truly ‘addictive’ (versus just seriously compelling and highly preferential) is not verified. In fact, no consideration to the general Internet being ‘addictive’ is considered even by the team of experts working on the development of Internet Gaming Disorder in DSM-5 revisions.

So rather than getting stuck on time limits for kids on their beloved devices, let’s develop and talk about the complexities of screen technology and have a better understanding of its overall impacts, which starts with examining what we’re feeding our kids digitally.

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Jocelyn Brewer is a registered psychologist and the creator of Digital Nutrition. She was the winner of the 2014 NSW Premier’s Teachers Scholarship for Health Education and her study tour to the USA will see her visit a range of organsiations in May/June. She tweets @JocelynBrewer

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Further reading and references.

1) ZERO TO THREE’s Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight—Research-based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under 3 Years Old

2) Houghton, S. et.al (2015) Virtually Impossible: Limiting Australian children and adolescents' daily screen based media use BMC Public Health 2015, 15:5