Outside the Glowing Screen: Creating a Digital Diet

Think back to when you were a child. Where did you spend most of your time? Were you inside playing with your siblings or outside playing backyard games with the neighbors? Would you play for minutes or hours?  How long did you spend on electronics?

When I was a kid I remember waking up and meeting my neighbors in the backyard. My neighborhood had about 15 kids, ranging from 4-years old up to 15-years old. We would get together and play baseball in the alley, red rover, freeze tag, hide-and-seek, and we even had water fights. We always rode bikes, attempted to skateboard, and rollerblade. The only time I remember staying inside to play was when the weather was unpleasant.  

Now let’s fast forward almost two decades where technology is everywhere and is easily accessible. Every summer I roam my neighborhood 3-4 times a day to walk my dog. My dog and I enjoy our quiet walks and looking at our neighbor’s landscaping. However, one thing is always missing! I do not hear or see many kids playing outside. I occasionally see a few siblings playing in the sprinklers or shooting hoops, but for the most part the children in my neighborhood are indoors playing video games or on their phones. So this got me thinking about technology and its impact on development.

You see, when children play outside with peers, they develop play skills, communication skills, and activate their sensory systems.  They also develop strength, fine and gross motor skills, and coordination  by playing on the jungle gym, rolling around on the grass, riding bikes, running, and playing in the dirt. These activities help the brain form neuronal synapses; however, when children spend more time using electronics, critical stages of development are negatively impacted.  Environmental stimuli is key to learning and developing new skills, and if absent, a child may fall behind their peers.  You may also see the child have difficulty with postural stability, sitting still, sustaining attention, having appropriate social-emotional responses, receptive and expressive language, sequencing, problem solving, coordination, strength, fine motor skills and even behavior.  

With all of that said, it may be beneficial to create screen time limits using technology as a tool and not a toy, and maybe even creating a digital diet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following screen time limits:
  • Ages 5-18: Less than 2 hours per day
  • Ages 2-5: No more than one hour per day
  • < 18 months : No screen time for children, except for video chat

A digital diet is the conscious act of selecting the information and content we consume via technology. When we use screens, whether it’s on social media apps, video games, or streaming networks, we want to be hypervigilant about what we watch. So think if the screen you are looking at is challenging your brain and giving you the information you need. If it isn’t, then you may be participating in mindless screen time activities. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic you may have received news updates on your phone, which provided your brain with the information you needed to stay safe. However, if you were aimlessly scrolling through cat memes for an hour, this was filling your brain with “junk” media.

Now transfer this to your child. What are they watching or playing on their mobile devices?  When your child engages with technology, use it as a tool, and make screen time meaningful. Sit next to them and talk about what the characters on screen are doing and how this can transfer to real life. If Sid the Science Kid is looking through his magnifying glass, talk about the purpose of the magnifying glass. After the show is over, participate in tech-free activities and use a real magnifying glass around the house and yard! This will help your child develop new skills and gain knowledge of a real life tool.

If you are interested in starting a digital diet and are looking for more tech-free activities to fill your day with, then refer to the list below. Set a challenge to see how many activities you can complete in one week! Remember to have fun and let kids be kids! Their main occupation is to play!

  • Play on a jungle gym
  • Scavenger hunt around the neighborhood
  • Make simple recipes together
  • Plant flowers in a pot or garden
  • Play in a sandbox
  • Go swimming
  • Have a water balloon fight or play in the sprinklers
  • Play backyard baseball, football, badminton
  • Draw with chalk
  • Relay races (3-legged race, obstacle courses, sack races)
  • Backyard Bowling
  • Read a book
  • Complete house chores (folding, wiping tables/windows/mirrors, sweeping)
  • Hopscotch
  • Jump rope
  • Hide-and-seek
  • Tag
  • Paint / Draw
  • Animal walks
  • Blow and pop bubbles
  • Making a fort
  • Riding bikes
  • Rollerblading

-Brittany Stout, OTR/L


Hanscom, A. (2017. September 21). The decline of play outdoors in children – and the rise in sensory issues. [PowerPoint slides]. Continued. https://www.occupationaltherapy.com/ot-ceus/course/decline-play-outdoors-and-rise-3484.

Neal, A. (2020, April 9). Digital diets and the impact of screen time on development. [PowerPoint slides]. Continued. https://www.occupationaltherapy.com/ot-ceus/course/digital-diets-and-impact-screen-4634.