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The Great Screen Debate

Today, kids are consuming more screen time than ever. Is there middle ground where health experts feel comforted and parents can catch a break?

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They watch an hour in the morning, a half hour before naptime and another hour before dinner.

"That sounds so terrible to me, but I don't feel so guilty because in between we're playing outside, having playdates with friends or on an adventure at the zoo," she says. "One of the ways I've found to cut back is to turn on music instead. I will say that my kids play with toys and interact with each other while watching. If they just sat and stared, I would be more concerned. I also let them watch on my iPhone or play games on the shopping cart or at the doctor's office."

Fradenburg says it's hard to cut out TV because it's a way that she can get a much-needed break. "Any parent with two preschoolers, 18 months apart, would tell you it makes for a long day," she says. "My husband works long hours and we have no family in Michigan to help."

Still, parents don't have to surrender to the screen. They, like Bachle-Docks and Fradenburg, can find a balance that works for their family.

Topic, time and total hours

U-M Nurse Boyse, who lives in Ann Arbor, has three kids of her own who don't watch much TV.

"It's in a cabinet with doors that close, which makes the TV recede into the background," says Boyse. "It makes it easier to not turn it on."

When the Boyse clan does flip on the tube, they prefer documentaries, history and dinosaur flicks – all of which they watch as a family and discuss as a family.

When kids are focused on a screen, they're not focused on relating to others or creative play – two foundational building blocks for children, says Linn. That's what the APA is hoping more parents will augment TV watching with engagement. Key to that is picking programming that can elicit thoughtful conversation.

Even President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have weighed in on how they scale back their daughters' screen time. Pres. Obama reported that they do not allow their daughters to watch TV or use the computer, unless it's for homework, during the school week. Limiting when a child can watch TV is another big way parents can set parameters.

Bachle-Docks says she's careful about what she lets her kids do in front of screens. They can't "surf the web," she says. "I usually try to enforce the rule, one half hour and then break to do a physical or creative activity." In the summer, Bachle-Docks says it's not really an issue because they spend a lot of time outdoors.

"I find that something changes in the kids if they spend too much time in front of the TV or computer screen. It may sound strange, but they become agitated and cranky," she says. "Maybe it's true what our parents said about the TV/computer turning our brains to mush."

"I believe it's a cultural, societal addiction," says Carol Rohtbart, a Bloomfield Hills mom to Max, 20. "I know when I spend too much time in front of the computer, I feel like a zombie."

When her son was younger, Rohtbart sent him to the Oakland Steiner School, where many families did not have TVs. She was comforted by this because she saw early on that the bright pictures of the television were a problem for her son.

"For parents, it's hard to keep your kids busy. TV becomes like a babysitter. I fell into that too," she says. Since her son's father was "a TV addict," Rohtbart didn't regulate their child's TV time as much as she would've liked. "Both parents need to be on the same page," she says.

"It's worth fighting over," she adds. "The older I get, the more I see how important it is. I believe we are disconnected to ourselves, from each other and from nature, and too much screen time has so, so much to do with that."

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