CHICAGO — If Michael Levine had his way, we'd consult a "tech pyramid," the same way we look to a food pyramid to balance our occasional treats with the truly wholesome stuff.
"There will always be some empty calories," says Levine, 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 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, e-readers.
It's a trend, say many experts, that's unlikely to reverse course.
"The devices are here to stay," Levine says. "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.
"The data is telling us that parents are not taking screen time limits as seriously as they might, but I think there's a big difference between spending hours on the types of media with no proven educational benefit — the empty calories — and educational media offerings that have proven educational value."
The trick is finding that screen time sweet spot.
Arlyne Chin and her husband, Ken, both IT professionals, wholeheartedly embrace technology for their two sons, 8 and 6. In addition to the iPads the children use in their classes at school, they share an iPad and laptop at home.
"We reinforce what they're learning at school and try to harness the technology piece of their lives to keep it educational and creatively bound," Arlyne Chin says.
They spend a fair amount of time playing video games on the family Wii and their Nintendo DS devices. They download apps and play games on their parents' iPhones. And the iPad apps aren't all education-based.
On the surface, that sounds like a lot of "empty calories." But Chin adopts a more organic approach.
"We don't give them a lot of instruction on how to use the devices, unless they're doing something that's not safe," she says. "We let them find their own creative way of maneuvering through different applications and programs, and it helps them learn to explore and tap into their creative side."
The upshot? The kids are fearless in their navigation and innovative in their tech-based play. The family creates digital slide shows together and year-end movies of the previous school year and sports season highlights.
"They're learning how to put storyboards together and make their own little movies," says Chin. "We don't limit them based on time; we limit them based on what they're doing."
It's an approach endorsed by Chip Donohue, director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute.
"I'm not a believer in setting hard-and-fast screen time limits," Donohue says. "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."
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 one to two hours of "quality programming" a day. Parents, some experts warn, need to consider the opportunity cost of screen time: What are children not doing when they're tethered to devices?
Families should take frequent stock of the role screens are playing in their kids' lives, Donohue says.
"When is enough, enough?" he says. "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."