In Alicia Swanson's home office there is a laptop just for her sons to use. The boys log on frequently — to find out how to build new Lego projects or play an interactive game about San Francisco that the family found on MostFun.com.
Some might say that at ages 5 and 7, Bennett and Elliot are too young to be online. But Swanson would disagree.
"I haven't really seen any negative drawbacks yet," the California resident says. Computer time helped her older son learn to read and spell early. Elliot, she adds, "doesn't really have the addictive personality where he plays and plays and plays, so I haven't been faced with that yet."
There has been plenty of research and philosophizing about preteens' and teenagers' use of computers. But very young children are also logging time with the mouse and keyboard, and parents are grappling with how much is too much, and how they can monitor what their children are doing online.
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Those without young kids at home may find the statistics surprising: More than a quarter of children ages 4 to 6 use a computer during a typical day, and spend an average of 50 minutes at it, according to a 2006 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which examined media use by kids from 6 months to 6 years.
Some little ones visit sites such as PBSKids.org, where they can play games based on "Sesame Street," "Curious George" or "Clifford the Big Red Dog." NickJr.com has "Dora the Explorer" games. Slightly older kids get into virtual communities like Disney's Club Penguin, Webkinz or Kung Fu Panda World.
"By and large, parents think computers are useful technology," says Ellen Wartella, a professor and media-use expert at Northwestern University, who was an adviser for the Kaiser study.
Parents are more likely to think of TV watching as an undesirable pastime, she says. But even helpful technology must be used in moderation, Wartella says, because kids need to play with friends, get outdoors, read books and do homework, not just point and click.
Swanson says she tries to limit her sons' computer and video time to an hour a day. She says she knows parents who don't allow their kids any computer time at all, an approach she says "is like putting your head in the sand. It's the reality of the world we live in today, so"... you teach them to create healthy boundaries" around computer use.
Distinctions getting blurrier
Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterated its recommendation that parents limit media use of all types to a total of two hours a day, warning among other things that watching too much television, especially, correlates with children being overweight. Kids under 2 years shouldn't have any "screen time" at all, the group says, because research has shown that infants exposed to TV may learn to speak later than those who are not.
"For little kids, especially as their brains and bodies and social skills are developing, it's so important for them to be doing a variety of activities," like playing with friends and parents and getting outdoors, says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, which gives advice for both parents and kids on which movies, games and websites are age-appropriate and worthwhile.
Nonetheless, many kids are barreling past the two-hour threshold as they play on computers, watch TV, and maneuver on handheld game-players and, frequently, their parents' mobile phones.
In fact, the distinctions between "computer," "television" and "phone" are becoming more blurry daily.
"We used to think about sitting at your computer, which was a big clunker, but now parents are passing kids their iPhone. It's not really that different; it's just a smaller screen," says Ulla Foehr, a Bay Area media scholar who was an author of a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study on media use among ages 8-18. The upshot, she says, is that young kids are being exposed to more "computer" time than recent studies indicate.
Kevin Dohina, of Fremont, Calif., allows his 3-year-old son, Max, to spend only 15 or 20 minutes on Max's Mac Mini a couple of times a week, playing phonics games and also "World of Cars Online," which allows players to create a virtual car of their own and zoom around the landscape created in the Disney movie "Cars."
"We play board games still with him; we read to him every night," Dohina says. "I worry that his attention span will be diminished" if Max spends too much time online.
What parents can do
So if computer use can be educational on the one hand, and potentially thwart kids' development on the other, what are parents supposed to do?
First, they should keep the computer used by the kids in a public space, not in a child's bedroom, Wartella and other experts advise. That way parents can keep an eye on what their kids are doing online, and kids can easily ask questions or seek help from a nearby adult. Research shows that kids with computers or TVs in their rooms spend more time on those activities than other kids, and that heavy media users generally have lower grades in school than light users.
Young kids learn about websites to visit from friends and TV, and parents also need to get familiar with those sites and ensure they are age-appropriate before giving the OK. They should also help children understand that not everything they see or read online is true, and teach them the difference between advertisements and games or stories, experts say.
Parents can also start their young kids' online exploration via kid-specific browsers like KidZui.com, where children can gain access only to sites, games, pictures and videos that have been approved by an editorial staff, or at home pages like Yahoo! Kids.
Services such as NetNanny allow parents to monitor their children's online activity and block unwelcome content. Parents can also set parameters on what kind of content kids can access by manipulating the "parental controls" on browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox (via add-on software).
Parents who allow their kids to play in online communities should use the sites' online tools to regulate what kind of communicating the kids can do with other players, says Knorr of Common Sense Media.
The strictest chat settings usually allow kids to choose only from a limited menu of phrases, she says. Linda Murray, editor-in-chief of parenting site BabyCenter, says parents also should consider talking with the parents of their kids' friends to see if the families can mutually enforce limits on media use. That's "so you don't get that 'Caitlin is allowed to play Club Penguin every day,' " she explains.
Most important, the experts say, is a tip that might be the most difficult one for parents: to set a good example for their young children. That can be hard, when "we've got our BlackBerry, and we're checking it every second," Murray says. If parents want their kids to exercise, read and spend time with their friends, they need to do the same themselves. "That's really the most powerful teacher," she says.