Think of technology as a food pyramid
"There will always be some empty calories," said Levine, the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a digital media research lab within the Sesame Workshop.
"But the idea is to kick the balance toward the more healthful, nourishing choices, the kind of educational media that allow a child to have a more purposeful experience when they're seemingly being entertained."
More "Little Speller." Less "Angry Birds."
Children age 8 and younger are spending more time than ever with screens, according to a 2011 Common Sense Media Research study, which clocked the average at three hours, 14 minutes a day. That includes television, computers, mobile applications, music and e-readers.
It's a trend, many experts say, that's unlikely to reverse course.
"The devices are here to stay," Levine said. "The wise parents and the wise educators need to figure out the right mix. We know kids are learning from whatever media they're exposed to. It's just a question of what they're learning.
"It comes down to determining what is a normative experience and how do you set reasonable boundaries at age 2 or 3, when a child's natural curiosity with his or her environment is permeated with devices.
"It would be unnatural for a toddler or preschooler to not notice the six or seven devices in their parents' home," he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than 2, arguing that unstructured playtime is more beneficial for children to develop creativity and problem-solving and reasoning skills.
For children older than 2, the group recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours of "quality programming" per day.
"I'm not a believer in setting hard-and-fast screen time limits," said Chip Donohue, director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute.
"If you tell a child they can only look at the iPad for 15 minutes, and at 15 minutes the kid is so engaged in learning and creating, why would you turn it off? I don't think an arbitrary limit set by anybody -- pediatricians, educators -- is helpful."
Families should take frequent stock of the role that screens are playing in their kids' lives, Donohue said.
"When is enough, enough?" he said. "When a kid isn't going outside. When a kid doesn't have any friends. When it's an impediment on a kid's social development."
Getting the good stuff
Early childhood experts recommend the following sites for help navigating the maze of programs and apps and games.
Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org): Its "reviews and advice" section includes descriptions and star ratings for apps, games, websites and more.
Yogi Play (yogiplay.com): Provides personalized app recommendations based on a child's learning needs and interests.
Parents' Choice (parents-choice.org): A foundation that confers awards for children's media and toys based on a multi-tiered review process.
Apps for Children With Special Needs (a4cwsn.com): An alphabetical index of reviews of apps that offer skills and play for special-needs users.
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