A Healthy Diet of Technology

by Lisa Miller & Tatiana Guerreiro Ramos

Screenagers, Screen-free Parenting, Re-wilding, Nature Deficit. You’ve signed up for one, or seven, or eleventeen of the newsletters, and you’re still feeling lost in the worldwide wilderness web, unable to consistently implement anything resembling a plan at home, much less put together a cohesive argument against your kids’ entreaties for just ten more minutes, please, please, puhllleeeeeeeeeeeeeezzzze. Internet Addiction Disorder. What even is that? Does my kid have it?!?

Technology has hijacked all of us, on every front, especially when we are talking about the effects on our tweens and teens. We look for books, articles, parent groups, and podcasts to help decode the studies and make sense of the avalanche of advice. So much pressure to unplug! Usually, we just end up complaining to our fellow parents (on text threads) about our kids’ addictions to screens, paralyzed by our own disorientation and dearth of solid knowledge.

Adding to our confusion is the fact that we struggle to understand what we don’t know, and what we didn’t grow up with. And our kids know we don’t know, so they are always several steps ahead of us. We struggle to stay up to date with the apps, websites, and games being relentlessly, released on an almost-daily basis. Not to mention the updates, new filters, skins, and functions the developers tout when they sense their young audience is getting bored with their platforms. (And you know those developers don’t have kids yet because no parent would do such a thing to a fellow parent.) The bottom line is, as a generation of parents, we are in the technological equivalent of the boondocks.

Adolescent minds are like sponges, and their frontal lobes are still developing. Which might be why we whip ourselves into a frenzy, freaking out about the potential damage and rewiring that’s happening in there. Because we are always trying to be better parents, we join the vigorous crusade to manage, monitor, restrict, and even eliminate technology from our children’s lives. Ironically, much of the incitement to scorch-earth technology happens online!

However, if we accept that technology is here to stay (and it really, really is), it might be easier to help our children develop a healthy relationship with it--much like food. And if we’ve learned anything from our era of self-help, it’s that healthy relationships are the key to a happy life.

Our kids need technology like they need food. No, seriously. Think about it. It nourishes and sustains them. It tickles their palates and gratifies them in the same way ice cream does on a hot day. We would never tell our kids to delete food from their lives. Rather, we encourage our children to develop healthy food habits.

Eat a balanced diet, we say. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, we implore. Eat more proteins, fat, and complex carbs than sugar. Choose nutritious snacks over empty calories!

These are food guidelines we try to teach our kids, even if they don’t always listen.

So here’s a revolutionary concept: let’s apply this wisdom to technology!

We can mostly agree that not all technology is equal. Some technological consumption is more healthy, or nutritious, than others. Sometimes we choose the internet equivalent of carrots and hummus when we learn through videos, podcasts, and online media. Other times, we go for the low-hanging Twinkie of playing solitaire, or watching anthropomorphized cats and Best Fails on YouTube. The latter may be more immediately gratifying, but we would never (well, not beyond college, anyway) have a Twinkie dinner.

Think about the empty calories you consume online versus the more nutritional ones. Are you managing to balance them so that your carrots-and-hummus consumption far outweighs your Twinkie intake?

In other words, what are you modeling for your kids? You have to address your own technology food pyramid before you move on to your kids. It can’t be a do-as- I-say-not-as-I-do situation. Kids don’t buy that 1980’s B.S. anymore. They will suss out your hypocrisy like Mario sniffing out Princess Peach.

Next, help your children understand the difference between playing Fortnite (fun, somewhat redeemable, kinda like fruit leather), listening to NPR (informative, edifying, like a nut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread), and sending filtered selfies via Snapchat (the Big Gulp of the internet).

Remember when they were little and wanted dessert every night? They begged for ice cream, cookies, candy, and other “junk” foods. And you gently and (mostly) maneuvered them towards fruit (except when you actually wanted ice cream, cookies, or candy). When you help them define and sort their technology habits into clear and non-judgmental buckets, they are more likely to start to understand the need to find some balance and eat some apples every once in awhile. And when they find balance, they are on their way to becoming functioning adults who will make mostly healthy choices, much like you do.

You see, if you shift your mindset, and allow for the very real possibility that there’s a way to do iEverything without deleting iEverything, you may realize this healthy-relationship-with-technology thing is within your grasp.  

You’ve got this! You are a superhero parenting ninja! You survived sleepless nights, explosive diapers, kindergarten, and picky eating. You can certainly find your way to a thriving technology ecosystem in your own house!

Oh, and one more thing: you wouldn’t let your kid go to bed with a cheeseburger and garlic fries, so regardless of what they are doing online, consider keeping it out of their bed (and maybe even yours)!