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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

February 16, 2013 at 8:08 PM

Is screen time playtime? Making sense of tots and tablets

Brothers Asher Bergman, 2, and Kai Bergman, 4, play with their iPads before heading off to school. (Photo by Cory Bergman)

I think my phone is a babe magnet.

Not the kind in heels. The kind in diapers.

It never fails. Whether I’m responding to an email, sending a quick text, or — you know — trying to take his picture, if my 6-month-old sees even a bit of that brightly bright lit screen, it’s over.

The phone survives, but not without some drool.

I know it’s only a matter of time before my son’s encounters with touch-screen gadgets extend beyond a grab and a chew. But it may not be as long as I think. Fisher-Price sells a case for the iPad that turns it into a teething toy (just $35!) and a stuffed monkey with a see-through pocket through which toddlers can swipe apps from their play mat.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long recommended no screen time for children age 2 and younger, and no more than one or two hours of screen time for older kids. But the research behind those recommendations scrutinized screens of our past — screens that talked but never listened.

What about all the ones today that do?

Three years ago, it was tough to find toddlers with tablets. Now it’s easy.

Seattle’s Cory Bergman, director of NBC News-owned startup Breaking News, wears many hats. He founded My Ballard, the northwest neighborhood’s news hub, and Lost Remote, a site that follows the future of TV.

He is also a father of 4-year-old Kai and 2-year-old Asher, young brothers for whom interactive, tactile screens are a part of life — and play.

“At the age of 2, Kai learned how to type in the four-digit password to unlock my iPhone. At the age of 3, he learned how to browse the Apple App Store,” Bergman wrote me via email.

“As I write this, at the age of 4, he’s trying to figure out how to affix my Samsung S3 to our Lego Mindstorms robot, because he saw a YouTube video demonstrating how the phone can control it.”

The family uses apps as a reward. When the boys have done a good job keeping quiet at a restaurant, for example, Cory and his wife, Kate, might get them a new app on one of the family’s two iPads or Kindle Fire. They just need to make sure the new app is not only fun, but educational.

Asher likes to play puzzles on the screens. Kai’s favorite app right now is the calculator.

Want to turn those off after an hour?

I called my pediatrician last week to see if she had different ideas about interactive screens as opposed to passive ones. Her nurse called back and reiterated the old rule. No screen time before your kid turns 2. Is a tablet just another screen? I asked. She seemed confused by the question. A screen, to her, is a screen. That simplistic view can’t linger much longer. On “Screen Sense,” a Huffington Post site devoted to parents’ questions about kids and technology, author Dr. Deborah Gilboa pointed out that at a time when screens can be puzzles, games, dashboards and even books, the idea of one kind of “screen time” is all but useless.

“A timer just isn’t going to do it anymore, folks,” she wrote. “Not for doctors, and not for parents.”

Many parents are going with their gut on this one. The AAP website encourages a good “media diet” and associates its 2-and-under rule with “television and other entertainment media,” a sign that the medical community is beginning to shift.

But as Seattle’s Dr. Dimitri Christakis knows, the science still needs to catch up.

Christakis’ lab at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute recently compared the brain activity of toddlers 8 to 14 months who watched DVDs with toddlers who played with blocks. They found nearly 1.5 times less of a hormone indicating greater brain engagement in the kids who were watching DVDs.

Christakis wants to keep running the study, but add a new group: toddlers playing with interactive apps on tablets. He can’t be sure until he does it, but he suspects the level of brain activity in those kids could be closer to the kids playing with blocks than the kids watching DVDs.

Screen time that could be good for kids under 2?

My son could get into that.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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