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Sheila Lirio Marcelo

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Parenting Advice: Screen Time, Our Kids and Child Care

Posted: 05/14/10 10:19 AM ET

I saw a super-cute YouTube video last week. In it, a two-year-old girl plays with an iPad for the first time. It's incredible to see how quickly she picks up on how to use the device. Within seconds, she's finger-swiping to different screens, pulling up apps, spelling words and showing off her skills.

The video starlet's dad admits that his daughter regularly uses his iPhone so she's already had practice with a touchscreen device like the iPad. She also pulled up a lot of apps that she might have already been familiar with: games that involve popping bubbles, a drawing program and an app that teaches youngsters how to spell. It got me thinking about how much our little ones are using electronic devices these days. Electronics and computers have become so easy to use that there's really no minimum age anymore. On the surface, that's all good--this girl has a jumpstart in learning how to use a computer and she's playing with educational applications that focus on childhood development.

But if you dig a little deeper, her expertise using the iPad and iPhone may not be all that great. The fact is, screen time (the amount of time spent in front of a TV, computer or electronic device) can be harmful for kids, especially toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under age two shouldn't spend any time watching television or using a computer. For those over three years old, the AAP and the U.S. Surgeon General say to limit screen time to two hours daily (yet most kids get way more).

Too much screen time, for a child, is like too much unhealthy food--it just isn't good for them. Different studies all point to the same result: for every hour of TV watched, kids run an increased risk of developing ADD or ADHD, obesity, or falling behind in the classroom. Screen time has an especially negative effect on young children. However, with the increased media attention and new reports out on the impact of TV (I just watched Frontline's "Digital Nation", which is worth checking out!), many parents have taken steps towards limiting their kids' screen time. I think that's a good thing.

What parents don't always realize is just how much screen time their children actually have on a daily basis. Keeping track of TV time alone isn't enough nowadays. For one, there's your own smartphone to worry about. I know I'm guilty of just handing my iPhone over to our 10-year-old so he can play games while we're on a long car ride or stuck in a waiting room. Then there are all the educational video games marketed to young kids. Their benefits can be outweighed depending on their player's age and how much screen time the kids have already had.

There's also the matter of what your kids are doing when you're not around. A recent study showed kids enrolled in child care centers watch an average of two hours more television daily than those who stay at home. That means preschoolers could be spending a third of their waking hours in front of a blinking screen!

Part of monitoring how much screen time your kids have means coordinating things with your child care providers. If your children are in day care, find out if they regularly have the students watch TV and how often it's on. If the TV's on too much, you might have to start looking for another child care option. If you have a babysitter or a nanny, make sure they uphold your house rules on TV-watching and set limits on how much computer time your kids receive.

I've found this log to be really helpful. It's a handy sheet that helps keep track of how much screen time your child has each day so you can start emphasizing more physical or outdoor activities. Try it out for a week--I think you'll be surprised at how much screen time your young children are getting! Think about creative ways to have your kids, both young and old, cut down on their screen time whether it's by adding more family activities, reading or outside play time to your family's daily routine.