Digital 5 A Day

The Children’s Commissioner for England recently launched ‘Digital 5 A Day’. #Digital5ADay is intended to help children get the most from their time online and balance their digital activity with well-being. It is also intended as a framework for parents and carers to use in their conversations with children about online activity and generally coping with the day to day pressures of our constantly connected culture. The press headlines inevitably focused on ‘regulating screen time’ and rules — however the intention was to help young people develop a balanced, creative, empowered relationship with digital and devices.

Digital 5 A Day came out of discussions with my colleague Rachel when we were developing the Growing Up Digital report. Through our meetings and discussions, it quickly became apparent that there are many excellent initiatives around online safety, digital literacy and parental support. These meetings however also highlighted that whilst there is a forest of information available, children and parents/carers often struggle to make sense of all the advice and apply it in their day to day lives.

Connected devices are becoming such an essential part of modern life that the ‘5 fruits and vegetables a day’ message seemed a good match when considering how to frame digital consumption and its impact on our well-being.

Discussion of children’s use of the internet often ends up revolving around ‘screen time’ and how many hours children should spend online. Fixating on counting hours is problematic in lots of ways — as Professor Sonia Livingstone and others have regularly pointed out. Counting minutes can strip out all context and it ends up valuing quantity over quality. We were keen to move beyond screen time and to promote quality and variety of engagement not just the quantity.

Whether the five fruit and vegetable a day message has been successful in actually reducing cancers and obesity is debatable, however the concept has entered into everyday culture in a significant way. It has provided everyone with a memorable, simple framework to approach a potentially complex topic like nutrition. Whilst the messaging has been co-opted by industry the widely understood phrase is easy to communicate and helps link digital activity to physical and mental well-being.

The Digital 5 A Day link to the NHS five steps to mental well-being is very important. These evidence-based elements are not only simple to understand they also help make the message less ‘techy’ and more human.

I feel e-safety type messages sometimes focus too much on the functional aspects of technology — settings and buttons etc or they feel like they are standing in the way of our desires — using words like ‘blocking’ and ‘filtering’.What the social media giants understand, and trade on so well, is how to facilitate our human wants in such a way that the technology is almost invisible — it’s not about using an app it’s about joyously celebrating your birthday with friends. And yet, our advice for children is often quizzing them: ‘do you know how to press this button?’ or ‘should you say that?’

The Digital 5 A Day doesn’t solve this. However, by linking digital activity to things that make us feel good it hopefully helps make the motivation to follow the guidance more intrinsic and ‘sticky’. (If anyone can help test if this is true or not that would be great!).

Trying to squeeze all the available advice on digital into five pithy headings is obviously very simplistic. However, that simplicity can also be an asset in terms of the adaptability of the message. Just as eating five fruit and vegetables a day can be achieved in a myriad of ways, so can achieving the digital 5 A Day. How you get your Digital 5 A Day is up to you and you can vary how you reach it. This flexibility helps fit the guidance with children’s existing passions, abilities and opportunities and also encourages parents and carers to adopt and adapt it in the way that best suits their family and day to day lives.

The same is true for supporting organisations. Organisations can easily add their unique expertise to the mix by providing tools, opportunities or advice for children/parents/carers to meet each of the 5 A Day or they can help adapt the whole framework for different settings or needs.

At the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, we have built on and adapted existing ideas to initiate #Digital5ADay — I really hope others will build on, adapt, improve or challenge it from here.

By collaborating, bringing different expertise and iterating this simple idea I hope we can provide new, accessible ways for children to thrive online and help them manage their own well-being successfully.

If you have any ideas, comments or examples of existing/better approaches please let me know on twitter @cliffmanning or on email cliff.manning@childrenscommissioner.gsi.gov.uk