THE BLOG
12/03/2014 05:33 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

How Young Is Too Young for Screen Time?

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I once flew on an 11-hour flight with a toddler who could not sleep on airplanes. We were headed home from a remote overseas posting and after countless laps up and down the aisle, a couple of storybooks and a distracted five minutes with art supplies, the solution that saved the family and our fellow passengers from high-decibel quality time with my daughter was a new portable DVD player. I didn't feel I was going to win any parent of the year awards with a screen time marathon, but I tried to choose mildly educational discs. As my child stared at a movie on the small screen, I stared out the window somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean realizing we were headed home to a new era in electronics. This was just the beginning of a long and uneasy relationship with technology.

While our device was soon dated, questions about screen time are more immediate, relevant and complex than ever. Small children lunge for our smartphones and tablets many times a day, and we wonder how much screen time is permissible, at what age and under which circumstances. Now that screens are more than devices designed for passively consuming video -- and contain everything from books to literacy apps - should we view them differently, especially when it comes a universally good activity like reading?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended absolutely no screen time for children under two years old. But it's worth noting that policy came out in 1999, a lifetime ago in our fast-moving digital world. In June 2014 the AAP made another very important recommendation -- that parents and caregivers read to kids from infancy. I'm an ardent supporter of that recommendation though it begs the question, is it bad to read a book to a 2-year-old if that book happens to be on a screen? Blanket statements about screen time aren't as apt as they once were, especially given the gravitation of books, educational materials and school work to devices. Recognizing this shift, the AAP debated the topic at their conference last month in the cleverly titled session, "Are Tablets APP-propos for Toddlers?." This led many to speculate that the AAP might change its screen time recommendation for the sub-two set.

I'm glad the AAP is taking the time to wrestle with this issue and hope it issues new standards that reflect the complex role technology plays in our children's lives. Like many, I live with the screen time question every day as a parent to three children who do most of their homework on devices. It also matters to me because of my work at Cricket Media, which involves creating content and collaborative learning experiences both offline and online. Here's what I've learned through my work and the experts that influence it. I hope further AAP guidelines can help establish further clarity around these positions.

My view is that it's always a good choice to read to your children. Reading has been shown to diminish stress, improve concentration, fuel academic achievement and build empathy. So whether it's on a page or on a screen, read with your child as much as you can.

Devices can be a wonderful way to read, if they are used in the right way. If you let the screen do all the interacting with your child (for example on my 11-hour flight), that limits its value. Jason Boog, who wrote Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age -- From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between, notes that the interaction that happens between you and the child is far more important and effective than what happens between them and the device. A number of studies have found that parents change the nature of their interaction with a child when they read with a device. They let the device and its features take center stage rather than the story and their thoughts and feelings about it. With young children it is important to stay focused on the conversation sparked by the story, not the technological bells and whistles that may accompany it.

In my personal and professional experience, contemplating how we use technology is a more useful way to gauge screen time than absolute rules. Screens can shut out the world and shut off the mind. That type of consumptive time with devices should be limited (11-hour flights perhaps excepted). Making time to engage with our youngest children in their screen time with reading or learning changes the equation. This turns screen time into a conversation that serves as a conduit to thoughtful human collaboration and a door into the world of the imagination. The technological journey can lead to a valuable destination, but it's the parent -- not the device -- that charts the course.