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It’s easy to get angry and self-righteous when hearing the results of a study like the recent one from the Kaiser Family Foundation about young kids’ media usage. The facts come spewing off your tongue as if you’re a preacher in a room full of sinners: 61% of babies aged 1 year or younger watch screen media (TV, videos, computer) in a typical day; 29% of children 2 to 3 years old have a TV in their bedroom; 43% of children under 2 years old watch TV every day and nearly one in five (18%) watch videos or DVDs every day.

And all of this is happening despite the objections of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that children under 2 don’t have any screen time whatsoever, as they need to develop interpersonal or other skills first. (I discussed some of these issues previously on MediaShift here.)

But before I get my diatribe into high gear against parents who are using screen media as a crutch and don’t have enough face-to-face time with young kids, I should probably be honest and share some of my own first-hand parenting experience with my 3-year-old son, Julian.

  • When Julian was very young, perhaps four or five months old, I used to play music on my computer, with him watching the visualization program, and he occasionally watched “Baby Einstein” type videos. (The survey found that 24% of kids under 1 year old watched DVDs or videos on a typical day.)
  • Most mornings when I get up with him to take him to school, Julian will watch about 30 minutes of TV while I shower and get ready for work. And there are times when I have to get work done where the TV becomes a temporary babysitter for him for an hour or so. (One mom surveyed by Kaiser said, “If he is watching TV, I can get other things done. I don’t have to constantly watch him.”)
  • Sometimes, Julian will also eat his breakfast in front of the TV, and occasionally will eat dinner in front of TV with me alongside him. (According to the survey, 17% of kids 6 and under eat breakfast in front of a TV on a typical day.)
  • Though we try to keep Julian’s TV watching down to an hour or less of TV per day, that varies widely and we have to set rules on it. (Thirty-nine percent of parents have no rules about their children’s TV time, according to Kaiser.)
  • Julian gets a 20-minute chunk of time on the computer each week, usually to type an email to his grandparents or play games on Sesame Street’s website. I feel like that time helps him learn. (Sixty-nine percent of parents surveyed believe computers mostly help a child’s learning, while 15% feel it mostly hurts.)

So who am I to proselytize about kids spending less time with screen media? Well, I can say that Julian doesn’t have a TV in his bedroom, he doesn’t watch it everyday, and the TV isn’t on in our house all day even if we’re not watching it.

For our family, we try to keep everything in moderation. We haven’t thrown the TV out the window, but we try to mix TV watching with outdoor activities and play time with other kids and computer time and drawing and painting.

Kaiser did find a strong connection between the amount of time parents spent with screen media and how that affected how much time kids spent with screen media. Most parents feel that TV and computer time is helping their kids learn, and that might well be true. But we should also think about what screen time might be taking away from our lives.

“The problem is what you are not doing if the electronic moment grows too large,” psychiatrist Edward Hallowell told Time magazine in a cover story on multitasking kids. “You are not having family dinner, you are not having conversations…It’s not so much that the video game is going to rot your brain, it’s what you are not doing that’s going to rot your life.”

What do you think? Are kids spending too much time with screen media, and how should parents scale that back? Or do you think screen media are great tools for learning? How do you strike a balance in your family? Share your thoughts in the comments below.