Confession time: I use the iPad as a babysitter sometimes. I know – all the experts say not to. But there have been so many times over the years that what I’ve needed was just to have my child distracted for a few minutes so I can take a shower or unload the dishwasher or make an essential phone call. Maybe you’ve felt this way, too.

My nine-year-old was born after the introduction of the smartphone. She’s a true digital native – technology is part of her daily life, and she can learn to navigate new technology so quickly it’s just astounding. And right along with the development of a generation of true digital natives, the recommendations of digital media experts have changed as well. I remember that ten years ago, the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics was no screen time at all for children under elementary-school age, with slightly increasing allowances for older children. There were – and still are – legitimate concerns about how the way the human brain interacts with screens can impact the growth and development of very young children. But we are also learning that that impact can be positive as well as negative.

Today, so much of the information we need and the entertainment we crave comes to us digitally, and so the discussion has shifted; it seems that most professional researchers are assuming that even young children will consume digital media, with or against their recommendations, and are encouraging families to guide their children’s digital media use intentionally. I think this can be done to the benefit of the child’s development, in the context of the needs of the family.

I’d like to offer these tips for developing a digital media mindset that works for your family.

  1. Balance passive consumption and active participation. You and I both know that sometimes it feels good to settle in with a mug of tea and some Netflix, and that’s a good illustration of passive consumption. But rather than this being the default mode, look for digital tools that you and your child can actively participate with. These include games that have strategies, tools that provide a creative medium such as drawing or coloring apps, or that have components that your child manipulates by touching the screen. Make conscious choices to balance your “vegging out” time with your “active participation” time to make sure that you have opportunities for relaxation, entertainment, creativity, problem-solving, skills-building, and more.
  2. Balance solitary consumption of media and consuming media together. Now this doesn’t buy you ten minutes to take that shower alone, but bear with me. My 9-year-old loves funny cat videos. She especially loves to crawl into my bed with me and watch funny cat videos on my phone… with me. Now is there anything developmentally enriching about a cat video? Probably not. But is there something developmentally enriching about the experience of sharing a media experience in relationship, creating a memory, bonding over something shared? You bet. So look for ways that you and your child can share enjoyment of your digital media use. This will create opportunities to make little memories with your children, and there is great relational value in that. Watch a video together. Let your child create a piece of digital artwork and email it to a relative far away. Use video chat to connect with Mom or Dad during a business trip. Digital media can be isolating, but it doesn’t need to be – we can use it to build relationships if we make conscious choices in that direction.
  3. Consider the connection between play and learning. Our children are the first generation to grow up with digital media literally at their fingertips all day long. Certainly children can and do learn without smartphones and laptops. But the tool exists, and we can use it to reinforce our children’s learning. Select some apps for your phone that  involve matching shapes, listening to stories, tracing mazes, drawing pictures, sorting objects, or other age-appropriate developmental tasks – so that on that occasion where you’re stuck in traffic or at the doctor’s office and your child wants to play a game on your phone, you have options that reinforce your child’s development. Digital games can contain a learning component, and that’s a good use of your child’s screen time.
  4. Balance your child’s digital time with good old-fashioned active playtime. Despite the positive aspects of digital media use with children, it’s always possible to have too much of a good thing. Model moderation with your children. Set times and places that are screen-free for your whole family, and demonstrate your commitment to screen-free times with your children. Remember that children learn through exploring their world – so be sure that you are also choosing board games, walking and biking and scootering in the neighborhood, playing with friends, and other activities that keep you and your child actively participating in life. Balance is important.

I feel that the major theme here is to make your choices intentionally. Research apps, think about how you select your media tools, know your child’s response to media use, and make conscious choices. Rather than feeling scolded for letting your child play on your phone, I hope you will read these thoughts as being guidelines for picking quality, participatory, enjoyable digital tools for your family, and for using them in a way that benefits all of you. You know your child, your family, and your needs – your digital media use can enhance all of those things.

And Mom, when you’re cooking dinner and you let your kids watch Dora or play Angry Birds on the iPad because that’s what makes that hour go a bit smoother – don’t apologize for it. You’re doing just fine.