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8 Rules for Family Screen Time


There is one television in Heather Cabot's Manhattan apartment. But who watches television anymore?

The DVR is set to record her twin 5-year-olds' favorite shows, including Sid the Science Kid and Imagination Movers, which they view as part of their daily 30 minutes of screen time. But there are so many other screens battling for attention: two iPads (PBS's Super Why! app is a hit), several versions of the Amazon Kindle, two LeapFrog Leapsters in Cabot's nightstand (the kids have to ask to use them), and two laptop computers. Cabot uses the laptop to Skype her in-laws in India every Sunday.

In the suburban Boston home of Jeana Lee Tahnk, a mother of two, ages 4 and 6, the rules are largely the same. Any time her children spend on the computer (which consists of visits to the Nick Jr. and PBS Kids websites) comes out of their allotted screen time. The iPad is a weekend thing, and those minutes are deducted as well. Tahnk didn't count the time they spent together watching Andrea Bocelli videos on YouTube, which she showed to the kids to help explain why their grandparents go to the opera.

Meanwhile, Sherry Turkle traverses the remote nooks of Europe with her daughter. Turkle tries to check her e-mail at every hotel she stays in, but unfortunately, the satellite signals aren't nearly as strong as the local espresso. During her trip, Turkle discovers that if you don't respond to an e-mail within 48 hours, people get anxious, worried. At least this writer did.

Welcome to the life and limitations of three people who know this powerful, plugged-in, pixelated world of ours well. Cabot is the web life editor at Yahoo!, where she covers “the way technology is changing our day-to-day life.” Tahnk pens the Screen Play technology blog on; she's written about everything from the latest research connecting cell-phone use and cancer to the viral video of 2-year-old Bridger swiping and tapping his way through multiple iPad apps with amazing dexterity. (Search “baby works iPad perfectly” on YouTube. It's worth the 3:38.) Aside from being director of MIT's Initiative on Technology and Self in Cambridge, MA, Turkle is the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.

This dream team (myself included) has one task: formulate the top digital do's and don'ts for the modern family. The average family household has a whopping 23 tech devices. Fifty-nine percent of kids have witnessed their parents using a mobile device while driving. Children under 5 are more likely to be able to play a computer game than tie their shoes. “Parents need to know what it means to be a good digital role model,” says Cabot. “We have to get a handle on this because there is no going back. Our kids will never know a time when they couldn't watch an erupting volcano on YouTube.”

“Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up,” adds Turkle. Technology is simply another child in your home, a toddler who moves at the speed of 4G, outsmarting the child locks and safety gates at every stage. Which is why we need these eight digital commandments more than ever.