The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit their children’s use of electronic devices to two hours of high-quality content a day. Too much time watching television, playing video games, or using computers or cell phones can contribute to health problems and take away time kids could spend playing and socializing.
But enforcing rules about screen time can be a challenge. Many school assignments require students to use a computer. Without constantly supervising, parents may have difficulty telling whether their child is studying or visiting the latest social networking site.
“The lines got mushy for us once our 15-year-old daughter started having study groups on FaceTime,” says Emily Paulsen, a parent in Kensington, Md. “It was hard to tell the difference between socializing and studying.” The video chat study sessions started two years ago.
She instituted “no network” times, turning off the router during dinner and from 9:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. She changed the rules when her son became a senior in high school; he put in late nights to finish essays and complete college and gap-year program applications on time. He’s out of the house now, and Paulsen has noticed that her daughter self-regulates her Internet use most of the time.
Sometimes educators have more enthusiasm for students using electronic devices than parents. Although his teachers recommend that her 10-year-old son try some homework options on his iPad, Rachel Ellis, a mom from Decatur, Ga., is glad it’s optional. Because her son doesn’t have to regularly use his iPad for school and the family doesn’t have cable TV, it’s easier for Ellis to restrict media for all three of her children. (She also has a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son.)
“During the week, my children can watch one or two family-friendly shows a day streaming through the TV via Netflix. On Saturday that goes up to two hours, and because we’re busy on Sundays, the limit then is one hour,” Ellis says. “I have to enter a password before they watch any program, so I’m totally involved in the process.”
Ellis, who works from home, also admits to letting the three siblings have extra TV time when they come home from school if she hasn’t completed her own work by then.
Imposing limits on younger children who still do their homework with a pencil and paper seems to work better than restricting tweens and teens to a set amount of screen time. As kids get older, it gets harder.
Molly Blake, a Palo Alto, Calif., mother of daughters ages 8 and 10, bans screens totally during the week. “So far neither of them has to do school-related work on a computer, but the oldest just started 6th grade and I know that’s coming,” she says.
Her girls don’t push back much, Blake says, because they know she won’t budge on the rules. Living in California, they can almost always play outside, riding bikes, going to a park, or using a kick scooter.
“Sometimes I worry my rules might be too strict, especially when they binge a bit on Saturday morning,” Blake says. “But the girls aren’t so addicted that we can’t pull them away to go outside, make lunch together, or just read a book.”
Blake also recognizes that her daughters will grow out of this phase and she’ll have to review the limits and adjust accordingly every year.
As her daughter gets older, Paulsen has noticed an increase in homework that requires computer time. In the past, her children had very defined, short tasks that she could see them doing on a big screen. Now, with everyone in her daughter’s school on an iPad, they must do all their work that way. Because these iPads belong to the kids and not the school, their users have access to apps and social media of all types. That makes determining whether students are really doing their work quite difficult.
“When our children were younger, we took away the video game controller and that was so much easier,” Paulsen says.
Instill Family Values
In addition to limiting screen time, Ellis believes that parents should discuss their family’s values so their children will not be as easily influenced by unsuitable material they find online.
One of Ellis’ friends caught her 10-year-old son watching inappropriate adult content online. In response, the friend brought all technology use to a screeching halt. That’s a step Ellis says she won’t take.
“I know we can’t keep our children from seeing what’s out there, but we can teach them values,” she says. “I’m trying to instill values more than time limits because as he gets older, I know imposing restrictions will become much more difficult.”
Blake and her husband predict that their children will eventually be on screens every day of their lives. For now, they want to control that as much as possible.
“My job is to guide them to make good decisions,” she says, “and for now that means helping them appreciate and experience life, the outdoors, traveling, friends, and family in person and not through a screen.”
Internet Safety, at Home and at School
It’s important for parents to stay aware of how their children are using electronics at home and at school.
Ask your child’s teachers how technology is used during class and what protections are in place to prevent access to inappropriate sites. Review the school’s computer usage policy and make sure your kids understand the rules.
At home, discuss your rules for electronic devices and talk with your kids about Internet safety. Monitor the sites they visit and consider using an Internet filter to make it harder to access material that you feel is not age-appropriate.