When I mention the word "Nana," 17-month-old Jovie gets a huge grin on her face and points at my laptop – the place we see my mom during chats on Skype. And when 3-year-old Lily sees me using my phone, she demands to play games on it – Puzzingo or whatever free preschooler-friendly apps I have loaded. Both girls clap with excitement whenever "Sofia the First" comes on the Disney Channel.

I fall somewhere in the middle on the spectrum between thrilled and horrified about the amount of screen time the girls get on any given day – whether it's learning about dolphins on YouTube, seeing pictures of their cousins on my phone or watching cartoons on the TV.

And like me, I'm guessing most parents struggle with finding a balance in how much media their kids are exposed to, and have questions about the positive and negative side effects.

More and more research is being done to look at the effects of modern technology on young children. Not surprisingly, reviews are mixed.

Experts still recommend limiting screen time

With the explosion of smartphones, tablets and interactive learning apps, the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend no screen time for children under the age of 2 and to limit screen time for children over the age of 2 to one to two hours a day of educational, nonviolent programming.


Studies (mostly related to non-interactive TV watching) have linked screen time to a myriad of negative outcomes:

  • Attention deficit
  • Behavioral problems
  • Psychological difficulty
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Obesity
  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Impaired academic performance
  • Violence
  • Less time for imaginative play

New research suggests some technology can be positive

But in 2011 the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media released a position paper (PDF) in which they defended the use of interactive media by children.

"When used wisely technology and media can support learning and relationships," the paper said. "With guidance, these various technology tools can be harnessed for learning and development; without guidance, usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development."

Researches in the U.K. released a study this year examining the seven myths of about young children and technology (PDF). While observing more then 50 3- and 4-year-olds and their families, they found that contrary to popular belief, technology didn't necessarily hinder a child's social interactions. In fact, when parents and siblings watched a favorite program together, the show offered fodder for discussion as well as imaginative play later on.

"Our research suggests that technologies can expand the range of opportunities for children to learn about the world around them, to develop their communicative abilities and to learn to learn," Lydia Plowman and Joanna McPake write.

I think the key point here is that any screen time – whether it's watching "Sesame Street" or playing on a phone - needs to be active and shared. Rather than plopping my kids in front of the TV or handing them my phone and walking out of the room, I need to sit down and be a part of the activity – talking about the show or helping them navigate the app. And even then, the amount of time they spend with a screen should be limited in favor of more imaginative and physical play.

The Mayo Clinic offers some great tips for limiting your kids' screen time. (My personal favorite was to be a good example of that yourself – those little eyes are always watching!)

Set aside time for creative play

Finally, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and author of "Taking Back Childhood" wrote a thought-provoking post for the Washington Post last year questioning whether technology saps creativity in children:

Kids need first-hand engagement — they need to manipulate objects physically, engage all their senses, and move and interact with the 3-dimensional world. This is what maximizes their learning and brain development. A lot of the time children spend with screens takes time away from the activities we know they need for optimal growth. We know that children today are playing less than kids played in the past.

Researchers who have tracked children's creativity for 50 years are seeing a significant decrease in creativity among children for the first time, especially younger children from kindergarten through sixth grade. This decline in creativity is thought to be due at least in part to the decline of play.

It's frightening to think that all this technology can be limiting our children's development. At the same time, I feel it's helped them answer questions and learn more about the world. Lily knows how to yell like an ibex, jump like a dolphin and howl like wolf, all from watching videos on YouTube.

As with everything involved in parenting I suppose the solution to the technology dilemma is balance – don't let them sit passively in front of a screen for hours on end and when you do power on, make sure the content is more fruits and veggies and less empty calories. Small, healthy portions are best.

Except for when Nana is on the screen – because you can never have enough Nana.