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I screen, you screen: Should you unplug your child?

I screen, you screen: Should you unplug your child?

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For many families, the holiday season is time for the big splurge: A new video gaming system, updated electronics, maybe even an iPad mini for the kids.

But wait — what about that New Year’s resolution? The one about “less screen time, more family time”?

It’s a tough balance for many. A generation ago, parents only had to make sure Johnny wasn’t vegging out in front of the TV. Today, “screens” are everywhere — not just aimed at the couch — and children are using them. iPads at the library. A DVD player in the car. Video games at a friend’s house. Mom’s and Dad’s phones.

Where should parents draw the line? Or should they?

“It’s a giant conversation, really — and it’s not just parents,” said Carissa Christner, youth services librarian at Madison’s Alicia Ashman Library. “It’s educators, doctors, librarians.”

Christner, the mother of a 3-year-old, is also a member of a think tank comprised mostly of librarians across the U.S. and Canada who have given screen time a lot of thought. Their conclusion: “It’s less about the technology than about how you’re using it,” she said.

That means finding high-quality content and exploring it with your child. That’s right: If you’re going to have screen time, do it together.

And if you want to eliminate screen time altogether in your household, don’t feel guilty about it. When it’s time for your children to pick up technology, they will — faster than you can imagine.

Just like parents themselves, “I think the professional community is really split” on the issue of children and screen time, said Heather Kirkorian, an assistant professor in the Human Development and Family Studies department at UW-Madison.

“There are lots of hand-waving claims that technology is rewiring the brain in important ways,” she said. “But for every one of those folks, there’s another person who says the sooner we can get kids prepared for the world in which they’ll live and work, the better off they’ll be.”

A report issued by the Kaiser Family Foundation in January 2010 — three months before the iPad went on sale to the public — found that American youth on average were spending more than 53 hours a week on entertainment media. Only about three in 10 said their parents had rules about how much time they could spend watching TV, playing video games or using the computer. Those with set limits consumed about three hours less of media each day.

Tweens, ages 11-14, spent substantially more time on entertainment media than younger or older children, the study found.

By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises zero screen time for children under age 2. Other children and teens “should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content,” the academy says. “It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.”

Yet those guidelines are based on the not-so-long-ago time when TVs were the sole screen of choice, Kirkorian said. So is research that found that while children over age 3 can generally learn things (both good and bad) from watching a video screen, children under 3 generally learn through in-person experiences.

Kirkorian’s research centers on whether that is different with touch-screen technology. Can the right apps, used in the lap of a loving caregiver, actually make toddlers smarter?

“I don’t think there’s any evidence to think that these devices are inherently good or bad for development — it’s how they’re being used,” she said.

Kirkorian recommends visiting Common Sense Media at commonsensemedia.org for comprehensive information about games, apps, movies and other entertainments for youth of all ages.

Librarian Christner has her own web page of favorite apps at madisonpubliclibrary.org/kids/apps. (And at madisonpubliclibrary.org/kids/story, you can even hear her read a story aloud to your children.)

She also suggests Kindertown (a website and an app) and Littleelit (website and on Pinterest) for high-quality app suggestions for librarians. She is wary of free or pseudo-educational apps, because they may have commercials or are based on consumer products.

Don’t want to pay a lot for an app? Christner subscribes to the Twitter feeds of the app creators she likes the most, and watches for apps that go on sale.

Christner focuses on apps since that’s the technology most parents ask her about, she said. She also likes the fact that she can be choosy about which apps her son will see on her phone.

Kirkorian’s stepdaughter Cecelia, now 14, had “strict” rules about screen time when she was younger. No screen time was allowed on schooldays, and video games were played as a family.

Today, Cecelia has “developed good habits” around screen time, and turning off the device is part of her routine, Kirkorian said.

That’s part of Christner’s strategy with her 3-year-old, too.

“Think of it less as, ‘I’m going to sit here for five minutes and teach you how to use this app’ than, ‘Hey, let’s play this together. Let’s have some together time around this app,’ ” she said. “It’s kind of like game night — it just happens to be on a screen.”

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