Parents teeter on the digital divide

Before she became a parent, Claire Harvey was firm on the subject of screen time.

“I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of TV when I was younger, and I wanted my kids to have the same sort of innocent childhood,” Harvey says. “I am the mother who said to herself, ‘My kids will never watch TV!’ ”

Today, however, as she and her husband juggle the demands of family and jobs, Harvey acknowledges turning to the television, or her iPhone, to entertain her two young children. Against her pediatrician’s advice, Harvey, 32, of Bethesda, Md., allows her 2-year-old, Jace, to watch “This Old House.”

“He could watch five episodes in a row, if I let him,” Harvey says.

Occasionally, she also lets him use an educational app on her iPhone.

Harvey doesn’t think the screen time is harmful. Still, she says she feels guilty every time she turns on a device — particularly when her 1-year-old, Haisley, is in the room.

“It’s one of my constant everyday struggles and worries,” Harvey says. “I wish there were more guidelines out there.”

Based on research linking too much television to language delays and disrupted sleep patterns, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages television viewing for any child younger than 2, and recommends that older children watch no more than an hour or two per day. But for parents seeking advice on managing their kids’ screen time beyond television, the recommendations go no further than the obvious: Limit it, and monitor content.

In part, that’s because the definition of screen time has grown far beyond television to include laptops, smartphones and tablets. It has become harder to measure how long kids are exposed to various screens.

“All screen time is not equal,” says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “What a kid does on an iPad is totally different from what they are doing when they are watching TV. It’s different psychologically, neurologically, educationally — so we can’t just lump all screens together.”

Further complicating efforts to draft new guidelines for screen time is the breakneck pace of technology. Almost as soon as scientists begin to study a new device, the gadget-of-the-moment becomes a thing of the past.

But as parents teeter anxiously on the digital divide, how do they know whether the decisions they make are hurting their children? The fact is, it’s too soon to say what the neurological impact is on a toddler given an iPhone to ward off a tantrum or on a preschooler watching a few hours of movies on a long car ride.

We do know that when kids engage in screen time, they are missing out on time-tested activities that contribute to their emotional, cognitive and physical growth. But we also know that a digital world is one in which they will need to be adept.

“Media are so ubiquitous that we need to start thinking about them not as something good or evil, but part of the environment in which we raise our kids,” Rich says. And then he delivers a more pointed criticism: “We need to get involved and stop using it as a babysitter.”

At Georgetown University’s Children’s Digital Media Center, director Sandra Calvert, a psychology professor, oversees studies into the “video deficit,” the hypothesis that toddlers learn better from observing behaviors in real life than on a screen.

In one study, researchers showed 21-month-old children a video of the familiar “Sesame Street” character Elmo nesting plastic cups. They showed another group the same video featuring an unfamiliar character called DoDo nesting the cups. Finally, they gave the cups to a control group of toddlers who had not watched any videos. The children who watched Elmo nest the cups outperformed those in the other two groups, evidence that toddlers can learn conceptual information from videos featuring familiar characters like Elmo.

“Twenty-first-century literacy is dependent on screens, and our early findings are promising,” Calvert says. “Tuning it out is a missed opportunity to open up a wonderful world of exploration that involves learning with your child.”

Until research offers clarity, experts agree the best thing parents can do is find a way to manage screen time that works best for their family, and ensure it’s being used judiciously. And be mindful that when children are in front of a screen, they are not climbing trees, painting pictures, caring for baby dolls or building towers with blocks.

“For every hour our kids spend on the screen, they should spend at least one squeezing mud between their toes in the backyard,” Rich says. “An iPad can’t dig a hole in the sand or build a fort out of sticks and mud.”