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Parents grapple with limits on kids' screen time

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Children interacting with tablet
In this photograph illustration, a 10-year-old boy uses an Apple iPad.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Children and toddlers have unprecedented access to digital technology, and are now spending more time than ever in front of a screen. 

Read the post-show takeaway

In her recent cover story in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin explored what this type of screen time means for children's development.

"Not that long ago," she wrote, "there was only the television, which theoretically could be kept in the parents' bedroom or locked behind a cabinet. Now there are smartphones and iPads, which wash up in the domestic clutter alongside keys and gum and stray hair ties. 'Mom, everyone has technology but me!' my 4-year-old son sometimes wails. And why shouldn't he feel entitled? ... To us (his parents, I mean), American childhood has undergone a somewhat alarming transformation in a very short time. But to him, it has always been possible to do so many things with the swipe of a finger, to have hundreds of games packed into a gadget the same size as 'Goodnight Moon.'"

Rosin's piece drew  a response on The New York Times' Motherlode blog. Where Rosin tried allowing her children unlimited access to an iPad, Dell'Antonia sets limits.

"Nondigital play is worthy of protection, too, and while I respect Ms. Rosin's experience with her youngest (and even envy it a little), I'm not planning to replicate it," she wrote. "Our limits work for us, and there's always unlimited access to everything from Lego to the great outdoors. I don't have any doubt that I'm raising the digital generation. I'm pushing my four members to stay analog as well."

THE TAKEAWAY: If interactivity is good, then iPads hold potential to be wonderful.

At first, Rosin said, critics thought that television would be bad for young children — that it would disengage their brains for hours at a time. But then experts began to realize that the right kind of TV programs could actually engage young minds, and that the more interactive the program could be, the better.

As an example of interactive kids' programming, she cited "Blue's Clues." Here's what she wrote about it in her Atlantic article: 

"Since the '80s, researchers have spent more and more time consulting with television programmers to study and shape TV content. By tracking children's reactions, they have identified certain rules that promote engagement: stories have to be linear and easy to follow, cuts and time lapses have to be used very sparingly, and language has to be pared down and repeated. A perfect example of a well-engineered show is Nick Jr.'s Blue's Clues, which aired from 1996 to 2006. ... The great innovation of Blue's Clues is something called the 'pause.' Steve asks a question and then pauses for about five seconds to let the viewer shout out an answer. Small children feel much more engaged and invested when they think they have a role to play, when they believe they are actually helping Steve and Blue piece together the clues."

Rosin acknowledged that some experts, notably the American Academy of Pediatrics, still advise no screen time for children younger than 2. But she thinks the academy fails to distinguish among different types of programs — and especially fails to take into account the great leaps in interactivity available in the best educational apps for iPad. 

  A listener who identified herself as "TT Mom" wrote that, in her family, the iPad went far beyond being simply educational. She sent in this comment:

"While our experience may not be typical, we have found the iPad to be a miraculous learning tool for our 7 year old daughter. She is vision-impaired and cognitively impaired, and when she first got her hands on our iPad at age 6 or so it made the literacy accessible to her for the first time (yay Letter School!!). We do have to set limits, and sometimes we use the iPad as a consequence enforcer (such as: if you don't clean up your toys you don't get the iPad), but honestly, this technology allows her to learn and have fun like other kids."

Rosin said that the easy availability of touch screens means that children will probably be able to get their hands on them, no matter what limits parents try to set. "You might as well engage instead of thinking of it like poison," she said, "and figure out what's best for your child."