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How much screen time is too much for kids?


LATROBE, Pa. – It’s not easy to press “pause” on today’s hyper-wired kids. But in the next year, the National Association for the Education of Young Children will attempt to do just that.

Members of the group gathered last month to begin revising their guidelines governing children’s use of technology.

The current guidelines were released in 1996, when the digital revolution was in its infancy and “Baby Einstein” had yet to be born. At the time, the team “felt gadgets were impinging on children’s growth and development,” says Jerlean Daniel, the NAEYC’s executive director designate. They focused on the growing presence of computers.

“Back in early ‘90s,” she says, “we had no idea what we were talking about in terms of the media that could come and has come today.”

Enter the inaugural Fred Forward conference, held last month here at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Childhood Learning and Children’s Media. Experts in education, media and child development got together to rewrite the guidelines to encompass everything from texting and viral videos to online chat rooms for kids and DVD players in the family car.

The old guidelines don’t make specific recommendations about how much screen time is too much, and say that, used appropriately, technology can be positive for learning.

But how do you write guidelines to cover technology that is constantly changing? And how do you recommend that what is now a billion-dollar industry be scaled back, if that’s determined to be best for child development?

Technology has come to occupy a central role in children’s lives so quickly that its impact has barely been studied. Possible links have been found between extended hours of screen media consumption and ADHD, with some children experiencing elevated blood pressure.

Other data suggest that indoor consumption of technology is keeping kids from playing outdoors. But kids can also learn from digital media. And its power to connect kids from around the world can help increase multicultural understanding.

The NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center will explore all of this, seeking additional data and contributing their own research as they collaborate on the new guidelines. Those invited to participate include more than 200 experts in education, media and technology, child development, research and child advocacy.

They have begun with the most elemental questions: How do we even approach writing guidelines for technology we’re just beginning to understand? Which things do we try to regulate?

It’s apt that this process will happen at the Fred Rogers Center. In 1968, one year before “Sesame Street” premiered, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” broke ground by addressing children’s interests and concerns through electronic media. He merged documentary-style segments about real people with scenes in a sitcom-like living room and excursions into a fantasy world populated by puppets. And yet he was wary of using every technological tool at his disposal.

As decades passed – production ended in 2001 – Rogers consciously chose not to incorporate the frenzied editing and eye-popping digital animation that became the norm in children’s programming.

That same restraint and careful deliberation is needed in determining how children can best be served by 21st-century technology, says Maxwell King, co-director of the Rogers Center. “Fred Rogers,” he points out, “was often the first person to say that sometimes the best use of a television is when it’s turned off.”

Associated Press