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Bringing up the iKid generation: How to incorporate tech into your children’s lives

Ken and Arlyne Chin look at a reading application on the computer with their two children Col, 7, and Jackson, 8, at their home in Chicago, Illinois, on September 6, 2012. The parents limit the amount of time the boys can spend using the computer. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Ken and Arlyne Chin look at a reading application on the computer with their two children Col, 7, and Jackson, 8, at their home in Chicago, Illinois, on September 6, 2012. The parents limit the amount of time the boys can spend using the computer. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

If Michael Levine had his way, we’d consult a “tech pyramid,” the same way we look to a food pyramid to balance our occasional treats with the truly wholesome stuff.

“There will always be some empty calories,” says Levine, the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a digital media research lab within the Sesame Workshop. “But the idea is to kick the balance toward the more healthful, nourishing choices, the kind of educational media that allow a child to have a more purposeful experience when they’re seemingly being entertained.”

More “Little Speller.” Less “Angry Birds.”

Children age 8 and younger are spending more time than ever with screens, according to a 2011 Common Sense Media Research study, which clocked the average at 3 hours, 14 minutes a day. That includes television, computers, mobile applications, music, e-readers.

It’s a trend, say many experts, that’s unlikely to reverse course.

The right mix

“The devices are here to stay,” Levine says. “The wise parents and the wise educators need to figure out the right mix.

“It comes down to determining what is a normative experience and how do you set reasonable boundaries at age 2 or 3, when a child’s natural curiosity with his or her environment is permeated with devices. It would be unnatural for a toddler or preschooler to not notice the six or seven devices in their parents’ home.

“The data is telling us that parents are not taking screen time limits as seriously as they might, but I think there’s a big difference between spending hours on the types of media with no proven educational benefit — and educational media offerings that have proven educational value,” he says.

The trick is finding that screen time sweet spot.

Empty calories?

Arlyne Chin and her husband, Ken, both IT professionals, embrace technology for their two sons, 8 and 6. In addition to the iPads the children use in their classes at school, they share an iPad and laptop at home.

“We reinforce what they’re learning at school and try to harness the technology piece of their lives to keep it educational and creatively bound,” says Arlyne.

They play video games on the family Wii and their Nintendo DS devices. They download apps and play games on their parents’ iPhones. And the iPad apps aren’t all education-based.

“We don’t give them a lot of instruction on how to use the devices, unless they’re doing something that’s not safe,” Arlyne says. “We let them find their own way of maneuvering through different applications and programs, and it helps them learn to explore and tap into their creative side.”

The upshot? The kids are fearless in their navigation and innovative in their tech-based play. The family creates digital slide shows together and year-end movies of the previous school year and sports season highlights.

“They’re learning how to put storyboards together and make their own little movies,” says Arlyne Chin. “We don’t limit them based on time; we limit them based on what they’re doing.”

It’s an approach endorsed by Chip Donohue, director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute.

“If you tell a child they can only look at the iPad for 15 minutes, and at 15 minutes the kid is engaged in learning and creating, why would you turn it off?” Donohue asks. “I don’t think an arbitrary limit set by anybody — pediatricians, educators — is helpful.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than 2, arguing that unstructured playtime is more beneficial. For children older than 2, the group recommends no more than 1-2 hours of “quality programming” per day.

Parents, some experts warn, need to consider the cost of screen time: What are children not doing when they’re tethered to devices?

“When is enough, enough?” Donohue asks. “When a kid isn’t going outside. When a kid doesn’t have any friends. When it’s an impediment on a kid’s social development.”

Lynn Schofield Clark, author of “The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age” (Oxford), recommends leveraging kids’ tech enthusiasm as a bonding opportunity.

“Watch the latest silly cat videos on YouTube with them,” Clark says. Ask them for a tour of Instagram. Encourage them to Skype with their grandparents. Work together to make holiday cards.

“Media,” she says, “can be a way to provide a social glue for families.”

“If we’re going to get past the ‘devices are evil’ arguments, we’ve got to focus on making responsible content choices,” adds Donohue. “Tech can actually help us get kids more active and keep all of us more connected. We have a fantastic opportunity.”

Early childhood experts recommend the following sites for help navigating programs, apps and games.

Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org): “The first place I send people,” says Donohue. Its “reviews and advice” section includes descriptions and ratings.

Yogi Play (yogiplay.com): Provides personalized app recommendations based on learning needs and interests.

Parents’ Choice (parents-choice.org): A foundation that confers awards for children’s media and toys based on a multitiered review process.

Apps for Children With Special Needs (a4cwsn.com): An alphabetical index of reviews of apps that offer skills and play for special-needs users.

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