New York (CNN Business)You’re probably already cringing at the headline.
If the judgy stares from strangers at restaurants aren’t enough to discourage you from giving your kids smartphones and tablets, the constant stream of news stories and studies on why it’s critical to keep technology away from our small people will likely do the trick. On Wednesday, the United Nations’ public health agency released its first guidelines around screen time for kids under age 5. It recommends children under the age of 2 have no “sedentary screen time,” including video games or TV exposure, and those ages 2 to 4 have no more than one hour each day. Giving younger kids any form of screen time is a point of contention. But it’s something I’ve made peace with and even embrace. At my house, I hand over a Fire HD Kids Edition tablet to my 2-year-old son for about 20 minutes* each day, where he swipes and taps his way through worlds of puzzles and counting, matching and language games. [*It’s 20 minutes of planned time that often turns into 25 minutes. Or 30 minutes. Okay, fine, 35 minutes].Read MoreBut I’ve seen his attention span, fine motor, cognitive capability and love for these activities blossom in the past few months, and he is taking what he learns and turning it into real-world skills. Growing up with Alexa: A child's relationship with Amazon's voice assistantStudies support this. Research out of the University of Washington has highlighted some of the benefits of limited screen time, including teaching empathy, improving word learning, encouraging creativity, collaboration in family groups and the ability to transfer problem-solving skills learned to the physical world.My toddler’s current favorite pastime is arranging magnetic alphabet letters on a chalkboard in sequential order — something encouraged by one of his favorite apps.But some studies — the scary ones that have parents like me question whether we are doing a disservice to our kids — have shown excessive screen time can cause developmental delays around language, personal-social skills and gross-motor skills.”You have to think about it like dessert,” Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, president of the International Society for Infant Studies, told CNN Business. “It won’t kill you, and you can have a nice relationship with strawberry ice cream, but you don’t want to substitute it for dinner, or real interaction.”Experts say parents often justify, or tend to feel better about, giving a kid technology when he or she is actively interacting with whatever is on screen. I’ve been pleased with games like Endless Alphabet and Smart Shapes, but some “learning apps” don’t live up to their promise.I’ve sought guidance from Common Sense Media, which has researched kid content and gives recommendations on which TV shows and apps are best depending on the age group. It largely advises parents to pick apps that focus on exploration and open-ended play.”I have seen so many silly apps where the kid isn’t accomplishing anything meaningful,” said Hirsh-Pasek, who is also a professor of psychology at Temple University. “But there are some options where children can become musical composers, artists and designers and write your own narrative. How wonderful is it to let them be creative and explorers? It’s meaningful to kids because it lets them have their own voice.”But there are other reasons for giving children access to devices, too. In the University of Washington study, researchers found parents’ primary motivation for allowing tech use is so they could focus on their own activities — colloquially known as “electronic babysitting.” Parents were not necessarily just trying to enjoy a few peaceful moments to sip coffee, but rather to tend to other essential responsibilities, such as folding laundry or giving another child attention.Exercise, sleep, screens: New guidelines for children under 5Not everyone can afford the kind of childcare or the resources to get everything done in the day. The reality of parenting is much messier.In my own experience, I’ve cooked dinner or unloaded the dishwasher while my toddler built digital ice cream cones. I am able to stay sane and focused enough to make a healthy dinner during that time. I do worry, however, screen time could evolve into a bad habit; one that will turn him into an adult more glued to the device he’s holding than the trees around him.The majority of parents who participated in the University of Washington study said they often “self-audit and express hesitation” when they’re somewhat benefiting from an activity that can be “detrimental to their child’s well-being.”Some families have responded by implementing digital contracts or media plans that outline how much time and what they’ll be doing on mobile devices each week. We try to keep our son’s screen time to under 20 minutes a day, and I often sit next to him to point out the numbers he’s dragging to the top of a Ferris wheel or ask him to count how many dancing bears he sees on screen.I also know the value of free time, allowing him to run around, get bored and discover how fun it is to sit underneath the kitchen table. Just like with adults, mental downtime encourages reflection, creativity and exploration. It’s all about balancing this with social interaction, physical toys and digital ice cream cone creation. “Families should set aside other people’s ideas about how much is too much and try to figure out what works best for their own,” said Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor of human computer interaction at the University of Washington.For every judgmental restaurant stare we get when he’s on an iPad, we’d get an equal one if he was making a lot of noise at (or under) the table. When all’s said and done, strangers will question your parenting strategies with or without a tablet in hand.