Creating an Online Balance With Your Kids

Caveat: As mentioned earlier in this web book, the term “onlife world” was coined by Professor Luciano Floridi.  Although many parents see a difference between the online and the offline world, today, youth see it as one world, or what Professor Luciano Floridi has coined the “onlife” world. Remember, not every day needs to be a tech day, but when it is the “power of three” can help find the balance when it comes to screen activity.

Over the past few years, there has been a real push by some special interest groups advising parents to limit screen time, given what they believe to be the negative emotional, psychological, physical, and social effect it has on youth and teens.  Important note – this is something that is not supported in the good academic peer-reviewed research, specific to balanced screen activity, that we speak to in this web book.

What are well-respected researchers saying specifically to youth and their technology use, “the question should not be how much time is your child spending online, but rather what are they doing with that time?” As Professor Sonia Livingstone has stated, the measurement shouldn’t be screen time, but rather their “screen activity”.

As social media safety and digital literacy advocates, we love reviewing the good evidenced-based academic peer-reviewed research when it comes to understanding how tech may be affecting us in both a negative and positive way.  What we enjoy even more, taking this research and posting about it in a way that non-academics (most parents) can read and understand.

Recently, we attended an excellent webinar titled “Minds on Media: The Associations Between Screen Engagement and Children’s Developing Brains” One of the presenters was Dr. Jason Chein (PhD) with Temple University.  Dr. Chein works in the “Control & Adaptive Behaviour Laboratory” and the “Temple University Brain Research & Imaging Center”

At the beginning of Dr. Chein’s presentation, he wanted participants to be sceptical about two statements that frequently appear in the media, and are often quoted by some parents and special interest groups:

#1: “Kid’s screen-time habits are bad for the development of attention and executive functioning skills” (Executive Control), and

#2: “Technology use disrupts how kids process rewards. Kids today always expect instant gratification” (Reward Drive)

Specific to statement #1, Dr. Chein’s quoted research (Cain et al. 2016) specific to executive control that provided “correlational” evidence, not causational, that there is “some” less than desirable outcomes to impulse control, cognitive flexibility, and attention/working memory and screen use.

Specific to statement #2, Dr. Chein quoted research (Wilmer & Chein, 2016) specific to the reward drive also provided “correlational” evidence, again not causational, that there is “some” less than desirable outcomes when it comes to instant gratification, sensation seeking, and reward sensitivity and screen use.

Given the above noted, Dr. Chein stated that research has shown us that in some cases digital use can lead to “risk-taking” online behaviour in “some” youth.  However, the question is, “who are the youth that are most at risk, given that the vast majority are not?”. The answer – we don’t know yet, but current research is showing us that it does appear to be a much smaller cohort than what most believe it to be.

Some parents and special interest groups believe that if too much digital media exposure can cause teens to be more vulnerable to problematic onlife behaviour, then it only makes sense to decrease the amount of time all youth are allowed to spend online. However, according to Dr. Chein, there is a paradox to such a belief; that paradox – research has shown that “While digital media use has been going up, risky behaviours amongst youth are in fact going down”.  This is something that we speak to in our web book “Parenting In An Online World”

Dr. Chein posed an important question in his presentation that we should all pay close attention to:

“What if being riskier causes greater digital media use?”

Something that we like to call the chicken vs egg approach to screen use.  Is digital technology the primary source for mental wellness challenges and risky behaviour, or is the overuse of digital technology a maladaptive coping strategy for underlying conditions, such as depression or stress, that can lead to problematic online risky behaviour? We believe that current research is showing the latter.  Again, something that we speak to in our webbook. Based upon Dr. Chein’s presentation, he suggests reducing screen time for “some” youth may in fact increase risk behaviour. We agree with this suggestion. For some youth who are experiencing challenges with executive attention and reward control, screen use can actually reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, which has a positive effect on their personal well-being and therefore reduces risk.  Remember, it’s not how much time youth are spending online, it is what they are doing with that time that is most important!

Yes, the research does show that for “some” youth there are small correlations between executive attention, reward control challenges, and screen use. However, as Dr. Chein stated, “We need to be very cautious in making causal inferences from these observations” and more importantly, applying these causal inferences to all youth. This is such an important statement! Why, because often the media, special interest groups, and some parents/caregivers do so in an opined moral panic-based way, which is not reflected in the good evidenced-based research!

Too many parents like to reminisce about what it was like when we were kids and apply those thoughts and feelings to how youth today should be spending their leisure time. I’m sure some of the parents reading this article can remember when their parents said, “when I was your age this is what I did during my summer holidays ….” However, when today’s parent was young, the internet, social media, and digital technology either did not exist or was very limited in their accessibility and use. Remember, the iPhone was first sold in 2007, so it has only been around now for about fourteen years.  This generation of youth is the first generation to be raised in a world where they know nothing but digital. This fact is why attempting to apply past norms and behaviours from our youth, specific to leisure time, has very little relevance to today’s teen “onlife” world. As we share with parents:

When we share our concerns with our kids about their onlife world, we should do so in a way that ties into where they are today, and is relevant to their life and appeals to their intelligence and experience.”

We are not saying that parents should allow unrestrained free-range “consumption” of technology, rather we are suggesting that a balanced use of technology, the internet, social media, and online gaming should be the goal.

The Power of Three:

The power of three is embedded in many aspects of our lives. In literature, for example, we have “Goldilocks and The Three Bears” whose porridge was #1 too hot, #2 too cold, or #3 just right. In sporting events like the Olympics, there are three medals that are awarded, #1 gold, #2 Silver, and #3 bronze. In the Christian religion, they have the Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. In construction, a triangle with 3 equal sides is the most stable platform to build upon. This is why many bridges and buildings utilize triangles’ in their architecture, given that they provide significant structural integrity. In music, the third note of every scale provides the basic harmony that humans find pleasing.

Humans love choices, but not too many choices.  Have you ever noticed that in many game shows, the contestant can pick what is behind curtain #1, curtain #2, or curtain #3? Again, demonstrating the power of three.

Our suggestion, and the reason for this article, let’s gamify screen activity using the power of three and apply it to youth and their onlife world to help them find a tech balance this summer.

So, how can we apply the power of three to Sonia Livingston’s concept of screen activity? First, let’s break down the use of technology by teens into three categories:

#1: Social Use

This category includes using social media to stay connected with friends via text messaging, or interacting with their peers on social networks like Instagram, or engaging in an activity they enjoy, like online gaming.

#2: Physical / Active Use

This is where a teen can integrate technology to become more physically active both inside and outside the home using apps such as Ring Fit, an exercising action role-playing game for the Nintendo Switch, Pokémon-Go, or Geocaching using a mobile device.

#3: Creative & Educational Use

This is where youth use technology to learn coding (why just play a game when they can learn how to build one using coding), develop a personal website (create their own digital branding that they can control for sport, college, university, and job opportunities and to share their interests with others), learning how to type (which will allow you to code faster), create “how-to” videos, or to even watch educational shows and documentaries to increase their awareness of the onlife world.

Another option to create and creative and educational use of technology, especially for those under the age of 13yrs, have them engage in podcasting that is specific to their age group.  Here’s a GREAT article from our friends at Common Sense Media that speaks to this very option that we highly endorse –

Now that we have these three identified categories, let place them into a ranking, specific to daily online activity that we are recommending as a starting point, using the power of three:

#1: Creative & Educational Use (3hrs +/-)

#2: Social Use (2hrs +/-)

#3: Physical / Active Use (1hr +/-)

This adds up to a total of six hours per tech day, four hours of which are encouraging teens to become producers and creators of content, and also to become more physically active through the integration of technology; only two hours are dedicated to passive consumption to connect with friends, or for the purposes of relaxation & fun – what we like to call “digital bubble gumming”. Let’s be honest, we all need time to decompress, especially during COVID, and technology can be a great adjunct to making this happen.  However, we find that too many parents utilize technology as a consumption-based digital pacifier with their kids, which is never healthy and should be avoided.

Once you frame the concept of the “power of three” specific to their screen activity with your child, focusing on how it allows them up to six hours of tech time each day, and sometimes more if okayed by you the parent. This will help your child to understand what a balanced onlife approach to technology should be and why.

If you consider that most youth like to sleep in late and go to bed late, most will average about twelve hours of “wake” time each day.  If you adopt the power of three, specific to screen activity, that means that the child still has six-plus hours of unused wake time for:

  • Breakfast, lunch, and dinner – which we recommend to be tech-free
  • Chores – to be done before screen activity is permitted
  • Engaging in other personal and family activities both inside and outside the home; learning how to skateboard or play basketball, learning how to play the guitar, or go for a family walk, hike, bike ride, family drive (we recommend that the car should be a tech-free zone unless going on a long trip) or watching a movie together as a family without phones, iPads, or laptops present.

None of the times associated with each category is set in stone, they need to remain flexible to meet the individual needs of each family. You could even split the times throughout the day.  As an example, when it comes to the creative and educational use of technology, you can provide one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon, and one hour in the early evening.  In fact, some days you may allow more time for “social activity”, but this should be the exception, rather than the norm for youth and younger teens. Remember, we want to concentrate on the creative and educational use of technology, rather than treating it like a digital babysitter or digital pacifier.

Again, we are not saying that every day needs to be a full tech day, but when it is, the “power of three” is a good rule of thumb to help guide our kids. If your child has reached the 2hr social activity limit, then unless they now switch over to the creative, educational, and physical use of their technology, then there is no more screen activity, unless the parent gives permission.  Again, we would recommend that this permission is the exception rather than the rule.

Quickly establishing a balanced onlife routine is important.  Before your kids make the passive social consumption of technology a habitual routine, use the power of three to help create a flexible and balanced onlife screen activity standard, especially during the summer months.

According to Dr. Sonia Livingstone, if you can answer “yes” to the following 5 questions then your child has reached an onlife screen activity balance:

  • Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?
  • In my child connecting socially with family and friends (in any form)?
  • Is my child engaged with and achieving goals at school?
  • Is my child pursuing interests and hobbies (in any form)?
  • Is my child having fun and learning in their use of digital media

Resources To Help Foster A Balanced Screen Activity:

Creative & Educational:


Free Web Site Creation:

Free Typing Lessons:

Physical Activity Promoting Apps:

Nintendo Ring Fit:


Geocaching (apple):

Geocaching (Android):

You Can’t Detox from A Device or The Internet:

For several years now, we have seen a growth in organizations that are promoting “digital detox” camps, promising to solve the ills of tech, cellphone, or online gaming addiction.  These digital detox programs, and even summer camps, can range in price from $50.00 for an online training program (how ironic), to hundreds, and even thousands of dollars for week-long programs. Some thoughts:

#1 – you can’t detox from a device or the internet. The Oxford Dictionary definition of detox – “a process or period of time in which one abstains from or rids the body of toxic or unhealthy substances; detoxification.” A device, like a cellphone, or the internet is not a “substance” thus you can’t detox from a device or technology.

#2 – The term digital detox we believe is a fear-based phrase that attempts to make a correlation similar to detoxing from a substance like a drug or alcohol, and therefore it is starting to be used by some to financially capitalize on these programs as an antidote/cure to “screen time abuse” – another phrase that needs to be retired. Remember, it’s not how much time a person spends online, it’s what they are doing with that time that is much more important.

#3 – At the time of writing this webbook, we have yet to find any good evidence-based peer-reviewed research that supports the fact that a “digital detox” has any kind of positive “long-term” lasting effects.

Don’t be fooled, save your money, and look for programs that educate and mentor an onlife balance, rather than those that take a “detox” based approach. Sometimes, this means taking a reasonable break from technology, or something that we like to call a “digital sabbatical”

Taking a Digital Sabbatical Can Help Create an Onlife Balance:

When it comes to youth emotional, psychological, physical, and social wellness, it’s about teaching our kids how to create an “onlife balance” with technology. We should be encouraging & educating youth, and adults, about sleep, exercise, nutrition, social interaction/connection, & how to integrate/synthesize these attributes with technology into our everyday lives. However, life being what it is, especially during Covid, we are spending more time on our devices to stay connected, while we physically distanced from one another.  When you combine this fact with other family stressors in today’s onlife world (increase in divorce rates, parents losing jobs, loss of family members and friends because of Covid, school instability, inflation in the cost of living) it is no wonder that we have seen challenges surrounding well-being, depression, and anxiety with youth and even their caregivers.

A family digital sabbatical may be the answer to help find the important onlife balance that we subscribe to.  In fact, some 2022 research found“…taking a 1-week break from SM can lead to significant improvements in well-being, depression, and anxiety.”  in the short term.  Notice they stated short-term.  In fact, the researchers further stated, “Future research should extend this to clinical populations and examine effects over the long term.”

By engaging in a week-long family digital sabbatical three to four times a year, it can be an opportunity for the entire family to evaluate and recalibrate their daily digital habits, specific to their use of technology, both inside and outside the home. We believe, based upon the above-noted research, that this will help all family members maintain an onlife balance.

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