As a child, Laurie Viets had the option of playing Atari or games at the arcade; technology had not infiltrated every corner of a child's life.
Before she became pregnant with her oldest, Viets and her husband would see families riding in minivans outfitted with DVD players, the kids inside holding their handheld game devices, and think: We'll do it differently. "Now we have a 3-year-old who has full access to our iPhone and iPad," says the mom of three.
She tries to balance out screen time with outdoors time.
"I want them to use it and have fun with it, but be able to step away," she says of the computers and smartphones in their lives.
As more and more schools swap out textbooks for laptops, the quest to achieve a healthy technology balance for kids is becoming more of a struggle for parents. Children can walk into the house after school already having spent the day on a computer or iPad, so when they want to spend their fun time on a computer, mom's smartphone or playing the Wii, the hours quickly add up.
On the uptick
We already know kids' use of technology is increasing. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation found that 8- to 18-year-olds use media devices for entertainment an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes during a typical day-which is 1 hour and 17 minutes longer than the last time the survey was done, five years prior.
Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says schools' moves to digital education programs present a real challenge for parents. But parents are not out of options.
"Make sure kids understand the differences between what they do for work and what they do for fun," says O'Keeffe, author of CyberSafe. "In their lives, their job is school. You're using this device for your job, that's to get homework done."
Limits and instincts
Chip Donohue, director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute, is reluctant to give screen time limits.
A healthy media diet "has to do more with the quality of the content, the quality of the interaction," he says. "I'm less worried about screen time if parent and child are engaged together reading an e-book, or doing an app. That's not social isolation time."
But if it feels like too much, it probably is. Parents have to trust their instincts; if the child gets too wound up, maybe it's time to unplug. If he or she is not responding to the real live people in the room, and the game or app is becoming an isolating activity, shut it off, Donohue says.
The best way to judge the quality of the content is to ask yourself what happens when the child turns off the device.
"Does the activity just live in the digital world, can it lead to fun imaginative play, or lead them outside to explore and have an adventure?" Donohue says.
Parents can help the child transition from the screen to the
outside world by asking the child about the story they just read on
the iPad or the game they just played on the laptop.
To avoid your child landing in a digital fog, experts say parents should strive to work in plenty of physical activity away from a screen.
"There should be something unplugged and active at least a few times a week where they can just let it all out," O'Keeffe says.
The risk of not doing so? Losing creativity and socialization skills.
"Kids can lose the ability to know what to do with themselves. When we grew up, we knew how to have fun with pencil and paper. Kids now are used to wasting time with something digital," she says. "We have to let them struggle with their own thoughts a bit."
Learning to be creative and having the ability to dream up their own activities is a very important skill for life, she says. Boredom has an upside, it seems.
What can parents do?
But when you try to unplug your child, are you met with whining, complaining, tales of how so-and-so down the street is already on Facebook?
Experts say the online world should be just like everything else in life. Parents can set boundaries, and kids should be told that sometimes they have to wait for certain things, similar to having to wait to drive a car until they are 16.
As for little ones who may already be swiping their finger across your iPhone, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning put out a statement this year recommending that the passive use of TVs, videos, DVDs and non-interactive technology be prohibited for children under 2 and discouraged for those 2-5.
But these new devices do offer plenty of opportunities for parents to interact in different ways with their children, and that's the important thing: interaction.
Viets remembers when parents would just have to answer a child's question with a simple but unsatisfying "I don't know." But if she is outdoors looking at the sky with her kids and they want to know what stars they're looking at, she knows an app for that.
"I can tell them there's Orion, and that is amazing, the opportunities for them to learn."