Strategies for using digital technology in healthy ways

Both young people and adults may benefit from balancing screen time with other activities important to their health and well-being.

Many people are concerned about the amount of time that children and young adults spend with their phones and other electronic devices – some even refer to this use as an addiction to technology. Many parents, educators and other adults are looking for ways to help children and adolescents find a balance between screen time and activities that are essential for their healthy development. Michigan State University Extension recently provided a webinar titled Finding the balance: Strategies for using digital technology in healthy ways. The webinar featured Scott Becker, director of the MSU Counseling Center, who shared a variety of strategies that can help both young people and adults use technology in healthy ways.

Dr. Becker stressed that one of the most important things that adults can do is to examine what they’re modeling for young people in terms of their own use of digital technology. For example, do you frequently check your phone, tablet or laptop to monitor job-related issues during your off-hours? Do you interrupt family time in order to get up-to-the-minute status updates from friends on social media? Are you able to focus on one activity at a time (such as watching a television program with your kids), or do you keep your device nearby so that you can multitask and check your email, play an online game, or respond to incoming texts or social media notifications? Do you keep your phone or tablet near you while you sleep so that you can access it at any time? While it may not be our intention, these kinds of distractions, interruptions and behaviors can send powerful messages to young people about the need to be constantly connected, often at the expense of our relationships.

Following are some of the strategies that Dr. Becker explored for creating a healthy balance between the use of digital technology and other important activities within the lives of young people and adults.

Take a digital technology inventory

Take a close look at when, where, how and why you’re using digital technology within the various contexts of your life. Within the workday setting, for example, many people are required to use computers and other devices throughout their work hours, and some jobs require people to be available via technology afterhours as well. If possible, explore ways to take healthy breaks from computers when on-the-job, and create guidelines for when and how often to use technology to check work-related information during your off-hours. Guidelines can also be helpful for your social, recreational and educational screen time. By creating guidelines for how much time to spend online (and when), you can model how much you value devoting time to other kinds of activities such as family meals, outdoor activities, connecting with others face-to-face, creative play and recreation, reading or just doing nothing!

Create an intentional focus on downtime

When we’re constantly connected and taking in large amounts of information, we can fall into patterns of passive learning and information processing versus deeper kinds of thinking and creativity. When we give our brains a break from information overload and allow ourselves to drift, we can improve our ability to focus in meaningful ways and enhance our capacity for reflection and problem-solving. It can be especially helpful for adults and young people to incorporate mindfulness, movement and play, and nature into our downtime–these kinds of focuses can help provide healing and balance within our lives. 

Help children and adolescents develop healthy patterns of screen time use

  • Current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourage screen media exposure for children under age 2, and the 2015 AAP Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium stressed the critical importance of personal interactions with caring adults when it comes to the learning and development of children. Across age groups, it’s important to set limits related to screen time use and to create intentional time for face-to-face connections, play and other kinds of creative outlets.
  • Studies show that adolescents spend a great deal of their screen time connecting with peers, which is no surprise considering the growing importance of friends and peers during this developmental stage. Some research has also shown that many teens spend so much time connecting with friends online because they have limited opportunities to have unstructured face-to-face social time. Ask young people for their ideas about creating more opportunities to get together with friends so that they can achieve more balance in this area.
  • For kids of all ages, explore strategies like creating a “one-screen-at-a-time rule,” as well as designating media-free and device-free zones such as in the car, at the dinner table and in the bedroom. Create opportunities to engage in media use as a family with activities like a family movie night or video game tournament. These kinds of activities can help you build connections with one another, and they help adults experience first-hand the kinds of programs and games that children and adolescents are interested in. During these common experiences, don’t forget the importance of helping children, teens and even adults develop media literacy skills that can help them deconstruct the wide range of media messages that can influence how we think about ourselves, each other and the world around us.

Commit to learning more about these issues

To learn more about the value of disconnecting in order to promote solitude, self-reflection and time to deepen relationships, explore books such as Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle and Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers. If you’re interested in learning more about media in the lives of children and adolescents, explore sources such as the Pew Research Center on Internet, Science and Technology (including their recently-released Parents, Teens and Digital Monitoring report) and Common Sense Media, which offers resources designed to help parents find ways to use media and technology as a positive force within kids’ lives.

To learn more

To learn more about these and other strategies explored during the Finding the balance webinar, you can listen to a recording of the program in its entirety. You may also be interested in listening to the recording of an earlier webinar titled This is your brain online: The impact of digital technology on mental health. During that webinar, Dr. Becker shared research findings about how overuse of digital technology may affect brain development, sleep, mood, concentration, memory, learning and relationship behaviors. In addition, MSU Extension provides a variety of programs and resources related to the positive health and development of children and adolescents. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum that focuses on several topics including bullying, cyberbullying, media literacy and social and emotional intelligence.