Put an iPad in front of a child — even a fairly young child — and witness an instant connection. 

Children are growing up in a world in which screens are almost always available. But what is the impact? Is screen time filling time children should instead be engaged in the essential task of hands-on play and exploration? Or by giving kids technology, are we giving them an edge as they navigate a digital world?

A red and blue football tucked in his arm, nine-year-old Chris Ridley maneuvers to stay one step ahead of his buddies on a Cambridge playground. He is playing a game that is both simple and fun.

"They're just trying to tackle us and get the ball," Ridley said.

But old-fashioned child's play faces a new — and constant — competition. Listen to what Ridley likes to do best:

"I like to do video games 50 percent and outside 50 percent," he said.

And for Ridley's generation video games are as close as the nearest smart phone, as Yong Li, at the playground to pick up his two young daughters from day camp, knows all too well. For him, managing 'screen time' is part of parenting.

"I try to cut it down to a range I'm comfortable with, but it's hard to do — they just want to grab it anytime they can," he said.

No surprise, kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from 2010 found that the average amount of time 8 to 18 year olds spend looking at a screen — just for entertainment — is more than seven and a half hours a day.

So what is the impact of all that screen time? No one really knows. Most of the studies on kids and screens were done with television long before the launch of the first iPhone.

"We are conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment by dumping all this technology on us, said Dr. Michael Rich, founder of the Center for Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Immediate access to information — as in "Google that," he says — is leading to a generation quick with an answer but slow to develop critical thinking. And then, there's the issue of eye contact. He sees patients constantly looking at screens, not looking at people.

"I've seen a change in kids," he said.

And for younger children, he says there's a cost for handing over the iPad when Mom or Dad needs a break.

"That's become the default activity for both child and parent," he said. "And we discount or ignore the implication of spending that much time simply absorbing whatever's there. So, you're not giving parents a break, there are those days when you just want to put the kid in front of an iPad or TV. There are days when you don't want to make dinner, too, but you still do it, right?"

In reality, parents do sometimes take the easy way out – calling for takeout instead of making dinner. But food for thought: Just like takeout, the quality of screen time varies. Rich and others say what may be most important is not how much time your kids spend on screens, but what they are doing.

For instance your kid could take aim at those little pigs in from the Angry Birds app, or they could be learning the fundamentals of computer programming. Sprawled on a carpet inside the Child Development Lab at Tufts University a pair of lively 6-year-old boys are each manipulating an iPad.

They are using a program called Scratch Junior that teaches them the basics of computer programming. Marina Umaschi Bers, a child development professor at Tufts, developed the program.

"We believe that it's really important for them to be able to create things with technology and not just consume," Bers said. "And they learn to be creators. In today's world, you really need to understand programming, because that's how technology works."

But here's the catch: Getting kids engaged in this kind of creative screen time takes time.

"They require an adult that at the beginning sits with a child and starts coaching," she said. "Once they learn it, they learn it and they know how to do it."

You're listening to the sound of bananas — attached to a laptop – working like a musical keyboard. It's just one of the many creations to come out of MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group. As its name suggests, this is a place with serious kid appeal. Whimsical mobiles hang from double-height ceilings and a low wall of Lego bins serves as a room divider. Natalie Rusk, a Ph.D. in child development, is among the researchers here developing technology designed to inspire kids to be both creative — and here's something that may just as important — social.

"The research bears this out — it's not just whether they're using technology but: Is it a social process?" she said. "Are there other people with them or when they're older are there people online that they're relating to rather than being alone?"

Rusk believes technology is an important learning tool. She worries when it replaces something equally essential: outdoor activity. Her hope is that research, like the kind happening in this lab, will allow children to explore both technology and the larger world simultaneously.

"As things get more mobile I think we’ll have less screen time and have more devices that we wear, and, again, hopefully build ourselves," Rusk said.

Whatever form it takes, child development experts say we're at a crossroads. Technology is now child's play. They say kids will figure out the game. The question: Will it be one that leads to passive play or creative thinking?

And will parents remember a piece of advice as relevant in the age of the iPhone as it was before there were phones: "Go play outside."

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