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How much screen time is too much?

My six-year-old son might just be the perfect candidate for ASIO. That is, if they are looking for code cracking under 8s.

The thing is, no matter how many times I change the lock code on my phone he seems to be able to break in. The lure of Angry Birds is just too much!

On the other hand my two year old made a gingerbread biscuit the other day, all by herself, no mess, no cleaning up. No me-licking-the-bowl-when-the-kids-weren’t -looking. In many ways it was the perfect way to teach her to cook. She even put the ipad away when she’d finished.

Screen time is an integral part of life for kids these days. New research out this week has revealed that mobile media among young kids has tripled in two years. Nearly 40% of two year olds had used a mobile device, like an tablet or an smartphone, compared to 10% in 2011. The average amount of time children spend using mobile devices has now tripled, from five minutes a day to 15 minutes a day (the average daily use among all 0- to 8-year-olds).

Teens are spending seven hours a day on entertainment devices.

The more alarming news, however, was that teenagers spent on average more than seven hours a day on some form of entertainment device. This finding prompted a new set of recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday.

“Many parents are clueless about the profound impact media exposure can have on their children," Dr. Victor Strasburger, lead author of the new American Academy of Pediatrics policy, told Associated Press.

“This is the 21st century and they need to get with it."

The policy is aimed at all kids, including those who use smartphones, computers and other Internet-connected devices. It expands the academy’s longstanding recommendations on banning televisions from children’s and teens’ bedrooms and limiting entertainment screen time to no more than two hours daily.

Under the new policy, those two hours include using the Internet for entertainment, including Facebook, Twitter, TV and movies; online homework is an exception.

“I guarantee you that if you have a 14-year-old boy and he has an Internet connection in his bedroom, he is looking at pornography,” Strasburger said.

The policy notes that three-quarters of kids aged 12 to 17 own mobiles; nearly all teens send text messages, and many younger kids have phones giving them online access.

“Young people now spend more time with media than they do in school — it is the leading activity for children and teenagers other than sleeping,” the policy says.

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The policy is gaining much media attention in the wake of the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, and the arrests of the girls who bullied her. Police say one of the girls recently boasted online about the bullying and arresting officers questioned why the suspects’ parents hadn’t restricted their Internet use.

With this uptake of mobile devices across the age groups, not surprisingly the amount of time younger children spend with the traditional screens — television, DVDs, video games and computers — has declined by half an hour a day over the last two years. TV still dominates, though, taking up about half of all the under-six year olds screen media time.

The official recommendations in Australia from the Department of Health and Ageing are:
- Children aged 5 – 18: Should not spend more than two hours a day using electronic media for entertainment (eg computer games, TV, internet)

- Children aged 2 to 5 years: For children 2 to 5 years of age, sitting and watching television and the use of other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games) should be limited to less than one hour per day.

- Children aged less than 2 years: Children younger than 2 years of age should not spend any time watching television or using other electronic media (DVDs, computer and other electronic games).

You would be hard pressed to find an Australian Mum today whose child doesn’t watch TV or use an iPhone. The debate in academic circles is whether interactive technology is beneficial or not.

Joanne Orlando

Joanne Orlando from the University of Western Sydney is researching how apps contribute to children’s learning.

She sees great potential with the educational possibilities of smart devices. But feels we should be concerned about the unknown effects over-usage could be having on our kids. “I have read research that makes the direct link between technology and developmental issues."

Critics point to poor motor skills, and poor concentration developing as a result from too much screen time.

A report this year from the American Academy of Pediatrics showed there was a direct correlation between increased screen time for kindergarten students and poor fine motor skills. However, it was not clear whether this took into account interactive apps.

So how young is too young to let your kids play with your smart phone? Joanne Orlando says that it is difficult to select an exact age when children should start using technology.

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“In many ways technology such as a smart phone is a perfect toy for a baby as it has colour and sound at the touch or swipe of a finger. If you think about it, that’s what many toys for babies do as well." She says it’s a matter of selecting the right apps.

Many parents worry that it’s too much.

“It is all they talk about,” says Anna Walker, a mother of two boys who can’t get enough of the top selling app, Minecraft. “When I try to get them to do something educational on the iPad at home they look at me with horror and tell me it is boring.”

Joanne Orlando doesn’t see this as too much of a problem. She feels that it depends how one defines “educational.”

"An app that asks children to find the answer to a maths sum (much like an old fashioned worksheet at school) may well be boring. The key to finding apps that support learning are looking for those that encourage creatively- such as drawing, painting.”

Anna is a working Mum from Sydney. She says that technology is a lifesaver when it comes to her family. “I’m the Mum in the café on the phone to my office, while my 2 year old watches Dora on the iPad. The looks I get from people are incredible. It's like I have given Ivy a coffee and a cigarette to keep her occupied.”

She says that she often feels ashamed she has to resort to technology, but that there is no way she could get through those work phone calls without it. Others see no harm at all with it. Ben Buckley is a father of three and says he sees no problem with letting kids write, draw, watch or game away on his phone.

"What’s the harm?" he says. "I wish we had this technology around when I was little. What’s the difference between drawing on paper or drawing on an iPad?”

But how to limit this technology when it seems to be everywhere. Experts say it’s about boundaries. Setting firm limits, and showing good modelling behaviour as parents ourselves. Put your own phone down!

Some tips from Joanne

• It’s important to give children enough time to actually use the technology, so ten minutes for school aged child is too short.

• It’s important to be consistent, for example if you decide everyone is to be off their device by 7pm then stick to it.

• Choose the tight type of apps for your child. Tap into your child's interests.

How do you handle the social media balance in your family?