You may be familiar with the phrase “digital minimalist.” It refers to someone who uses digital media, but only sparingly. A digital minimalist recognizes the power and convenience that modern technologies offer but is wary of how easily they can dominate one’s life and threaten other valuable offline experiences.
When it comes to raising children, a digital minimalist often follows a low-tech parenting philosophy. This approach offers more balance than screen-free parenting, where kids aren’t allowed any screen time. Many parents find the minimalist method to work better in the real world.
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I like to describe myself as a digital minimalist mom. I am highly cautious about blending digital media and kids, and thus my three children are growing up without daily access to many of the devices that their friends and peers use.
While I have numerous reasons for choosing this unusual path – from scientifically-based concerns about brain development to a desire for them to learn conversation and problem-solving skills – one of the most powerful motivations is to give them time and space to discover the rich and exciting “real” world that exists beyond screens. And this world is much better for our children than the technology addiction alternative many kids are facing.
There is truly so much out there to do and see once you remove the distraction of screens.
How to Create a Healthy Balance for Kids and Technology
In recent years, numerous parents have approached me with questions about how to reduce their kids’ screen time. That is partly why I decided to write a book called Childhood Unplugged: Practical Advice to Get Kids Off Screens and Find Balance.
While it’s a complex issue to unpack, here are some basic strategies for implementing digital minimalism or taking a low-tech parenting approach when it comes to your family.
Don’t Introduce It
Everyone else might be scrambling to buy tablets for their toddlers and smartphones for their middle-schoolers, but that does not mean you have to. It is perfectly fine to go against the status quo and say, “I don’t want that for my child.”
I am far less concerned about helping my child fit in than I am about ensuring they learn valuable life lessons like how to play, how to deal with boredom, how to communicate, and how to pitch in around the house.
Also: They can’t miss what they don’t know.
Many parents express quiet regret at having given their children tablets and smartphones when they did. They tell me that, if they could go back in time and hold out longer, they would. They express concern at the changes they’ve seen in their child since opening that Pandora’s box of influence, distraction, and entertainment. They wish someone had told them it was OK to “delay, delay, delay!”
Set Strict Limits
It is never too late to initiate a “digital reset.” Put the devices away. Hide them from view so that seeing them doesn’t trigger the dopamine surges that make them so addictive to little brains. Then limit access by saying no.
Create times in your schedule when the child cannot see or access those devices, and then work on increasing those screen-free times while narrowing the usage times to almost nothing. What you will find is that, when kids know they cannot go on a device, that there’s absolutely no chance of it, that there is nothing for them to anticipate, the craving goes away.
One caveat: Don’t expect your child to carry your philosophy into the world and apply it elsewhere. That is too great a burden to place on a child. I let my kids watch movies and play video games and nerd out over silly Internet memes and Snapchat filters when they hang out with friends.
To do otherwise would be to alienate them socially and make them difficult guests to host, and that’s the last thing I want. What’s important for them to understand is that we do things differently at home.
Spend Time Outside Every Day
I rely heavily on the outdoors to be a constant and accessible source of entertainment for my children. There are real physiological benefits to be had from it, with levels of anxiety, stress, and depression improving with time spent in nature.
Self-reports of well-being and happiness surge outdoors. Kids come back inside better able to focus and pay attention, which is particularly important for school.
Outdoor play time is a valuable tool for parents looking to fill offline hours. Use it to your advantage. My kids are expected to spend time outside each day after school, before starting on homework or attending extracurriculars.
Our backyard is filled with “loose parts,” a phrase used to describe toys and materials with creative, open-ended uses. On weekends, we try to plan family hikes, bike rides, campfires, skiing, and other nature-based outings. Don’t underestimate the power of the outdoors to entertain your child. Even a small urban yard can seem like a magical kingdom to a child.
Enrich Their Offline Lives
If you take the screens away, you have to fill kids’ time and minds with something else. You cannot expect them to know automatically what to do if they have relied on digital media for instant gratification and distraction for years.
They may need to learn how to play again. As the parent, you need to help make real life fun, and that does take work — but it’s fun work. Get creative with screen free activities.
Get your kid doing stuff, whether it’s sports or art or reading or playing board games or taking care of a new pet or learning an instrument or working toward a bigger life goal. You may need to invest in sporting gear, art supplies, books, games, and more to keep them stimulate. But if you think of it as a reallocation of funds that would otherwise be spent upgrading devices and paying for data plans, it’s not an unrealistic suggestion.
Embrace the messiness and noise of a busy household. Have friends over more often. Go places on weekends. Spend time hanging out with them. Get to know your kid better! Give them something to look forward to, something to be proud of, something to engage their hearts and minds.
Choose Simpler Technology
If your kid needs a phone to be able to reach you, don’t buy them the most powerful handheld device that exists, aka the smartphone. Get them something that does the bare minimum, like an old-style flip phone (which doesn’t have to look archaic) or a snazzy-looking Light Phone or a Gizmo watch or whatever your local phone store has.
To go from zero access to accessing the entire world is too much for a kid to handle, no matter how mature they seem. Adults can barely manage! Start small.
Use Computers Instead
It may sound counterintuitive, but you can insist that an older teen only access social media accounts from a desktop or laptop computer at home, instead of using apps on their phone.
This low-tech parenting strategy allows them to stay connected to peers by checking it daily or weekly. But they don’t have constant access where it is irresistible.
Set an Example
As the parent, you need to model the kind of behavior you want your child to learn. Mindful parenting offers many opportunities to set a good example of being in the present moment.
Keep your phone on silent or out of sight, and check it only when necessary. Give your child your full attention, make eye contact, ask questions, have conversations.
Show interest and curiosity in who they are. Demonstrate a commitment to offline hobbies and interests that enrich your own life. Remember that your example teaches a child more than anything you ever say.
Understand That It’s OK to Revisit the Rules
I tell parents all the time that it’s never too late to rein in digital overload. It’s OK to tell kids that you’ve changed your opinion on device usage, based on new information you have acquired. You have that right, as the parent, to redefine your goals and to reassert the fact that your job is to do what’s best for your child, not what your child necessarily wants or what everyone else is doing.
You alone are the expert on your own family and you need not be committed to a single pre-established approach. So, don’t be afraid to lay out new ground rules and screen time limits for your home. Have family meetings every month that restate them and allow for discussion.
Together, we can give kids back the play-filled, imaginative childhoods that they deserve — and can only ever experience once.
Which low-tech parenting strategies have you adopted? How have they worked in your family? Tell us in the comments so other parents can find inspiration!