Computer games + summer = red flag

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 1, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

Any ideas on how to limit my children's almost obsessive interest in computer time?

They are ages 12, 13, and 15. Only our 15 year old has a cellphone. They all have ipods. Thankfully, they spend much time reading. We get them out of the house, to the beach, to visit family as often as we can. However, they have a lot of down time and are constantly fighting or negotiating for computer time despite the limits we have set. They are well behaved, but this computer time issue has pushed me to the limit. Even when they have a friend over they only want to play computer. Our 15 year old babysits and has a little more freedom, but it is difficult to entertain the younger two. I miss the days when they would play in the backyard for hours!

From: ML, Arlington, MA


Dear ML,

Good for you for spotting this red flag: Not only is summer typically a time when teens spend more time on the computer, but also when they can unknowingly become addicted.

The best antidote is to have clear boundaries and rules about computer use, video games, computer games, and even poker playing, from the moment your kids start to play, no matter how young a child is. (The younger they are, the more likely they are to get addicted.) Have a family meeting to get the problem on the table: Your worries, for instance" "'I've noticed you don't seem to enjoy the things you used to enjoy. You didn't go fishing with the boys last week, you wanted to stay home and be on the computer. I'm wondering if you even realize that you gave up something you used to love to do in the summer."


Talk about how much time you think is reasonable for each child per day. (Start low and be prepared to negotiate.) Tell them your objections to particular issues, for instance, violence & pornography. Ask each child to sit down with you and show you the sites they visit and explain why they like them. For the bickering, tell them how bothersome it is to hear them go at it. Make some suggestions -- a sign-up sheet; using a timer -- and then put it in their hands: "You three need to solve this problem. Come back to us when you have some ideas we can discuss."

Then ask each child to draw up a contract that details the sites/games they visit; when, and for how long. Take it under advisement, work over it to be sure it has details that satisfy you, for instance, "For every x hours on the computer, John agrees to x hours per day of outdoor exercise, and x minutes of chores."

You get the idea. Once you have contracts, especially contract they have helped write, your boys will be much more likely to buy into the rules.

You probably didn't expect such a complicated answer! But overuse of the computer at this age can be a serious problem. I don't mean to be over-reacting, just trying to help you stay ahead of the curve.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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6 comments so far...
  1. I would also find other things for them to do! At 12 and 13, there are probably rec department programs for free or cheap that they can participate in. There are day camps/summer programs for kids that age, often with focus on a particular sport or activity - sailing lessons, tennis lessons, soccer/basketball/baseball clinic, etc - they can work on a favorite or try something new. Did they like Legos when they were younger? Get them some models to build. Get a chemistry set, have them start a yardwork business.. Have them brainstorm things they'd like to do, and work together to figure it out.

    Posted by akmom July 1, 10 06:46 AM
  1. I would also add that putting the computer in an area of the house that gets a lot of foot traffic can help control usage. When I was growing up (I'm in my early 20s now), our family computer was in the kitchen. If mom was cooking dinner at the counter, she could see exactly what I was doing. While I don't believe in restricting or eliminating computer usage (kids need good computer skills to thrive as adults in the school and workplace now), I don't believe that any child or teen has a right to privacy when it comes to computer time.

    In addition, as kids approach this age, their outdoor play is far less imaginative and more constructive. Its appropriate that a 13 year old might not spend hours playing in the backyard, imagining baseball games or safari adventures or whatever. Make sure the kids have something constructive to DO that they enjoy (building a treehouse, having fun with water balloons, working on repairing an old bike, etc).

    Also find new and safe ways to involve their friends in face-time play. Its a critical age for social behavior, and the sooner you make your home and yard a safe space for kids to feel welcome, the better. I remember coming of age, and AIM was big then. I played on the computer because it was a social outlet--my friends were online to talk to. Make sure real-time play can be equally social if that's what they are looking for.

    Posted by Sarah B July 1, 10 11:23 AM
  1. Instead of so many hours a day, how about so many hours a week? Let the kids divide it up how they want (within reason) The rule shold be that how one uses the time is not the business of anyone else. If Kid A is on the computer Kids B and C have to leave A alone.

    So if Junior wants one afternoon of uninterrupted time a week for some long involved game, he can have it without the other two hanging over his shoulder waiting for their turn and hollering "Mom, he's played for 46 minutes now instead of 45!"

    Posted by di July 1, 10 12:42 PM
  1. Wow, is it really that hard? My children know the rules about our family computer. They also know that if they continue to whine about it after I have told them no they will be punished. Punishments are usually a reduction or totally removal of the next days computer time. I only had to use this on my 8yr old daughter once and my 14 yr. old son twice, they learned very quickly mom means business.
    Setting firm rules and sticking to them no matter how much they complain is my gameplan with almost everything.

    Posted by Sherry July 1, 10 06:57 PM
  1. Kids learn by example not by what you say. If you don't want them to use the computer too much or watch too much TV, don't use the computer or watch TV too much yourself.

    I wish computers had to feature to let the system administrator (which should always be the parent) specify which times of day and for how many hours a day and/or week a given user account can be logged in.

    And now I realize what a hypocrite I'm being. I've been on this machine far too long today. That's raising a flag. I'm shutting it off and going for a walk.

    Posted by Mark July 1, 10 07:56 PM
  1. I believe that the extent to which young people become entranced by the adventure, discovery and excitement of video games mirrors the extent to which they lack those things in their real lives. The answer to this, of course, is to brainstorm real-time activities that your children will enjoy. High intensity kids might take to paintball, geocaching, or adventure bike rides. For lower energy kids, legitimate opportunities for exploration might fit the bill. When we become too entranced by the offerings of the cyber world, it is often because of a lack of certain things in our lives.

    Posted by kevinjroberts July 1, 10 08:45 PM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. I would also find other things for them to do! At 12 and 13, there are probably rec department programs for free or cheap that they can participate in. There are day camps/summer programs for kids that age, often with focus on a particular sport or activity - sailing lessons, tennis lessons, soccer/basketball/baseball clinic, etc - they can work on a favorite or try something new. Did they like Legos when they were younger? Get them some models to build. Get a chemistry set, have them start a yardwork business.. Have them brainstorm things they'd like to do, and work together to figure it out.

    Posted by akmom July 1, 10 06:46 AM
  1. I would also add that putting the computer in an area of the house that gets a lot of foot traffic can help control usage. When I was growing up (I'm in my early 20s now), our family computer was in the kitchen. If mom was cooking dinner at the counter, she could see exactly what I was doing. While I don't believe in restricting or eliminating computer usage (kids need good computer skills to thrive as adults in the school and workplace now), I don't believe that any child or teen has a right to privacy when it comes to computer time.

    In addition, as kids approach this age, their outdoor play is far less imaginative and more constructive. Its appropriate that a 13 year old might not spend hours playing in the backyard, imagining baseball games or safari adventures or whatever. Make sure the kids have something constructive to DO that they enjoy (building a treehouse, having fun with water balloons, working on repairing an old bike, etc).

    Also find new and safe ways to involve their friends in face-time play. Its a critical age for social behavior, and the sooner you make your home and yard a safe space for kids to feel welcome, the better. I remember coming of age, and AIM was big then. I played on the computer because it was a social outlet--my friends were online to talk to. Make sure real-time play can be equally social if that's what they are looking for.

    Posted by Sarah B July 1, 10 11:23 AM
  1. Instead of so many hours a day, how about so many hours a week? Let the kids divide it up how they want (within reason) The rule shold be that how one uses the time is not the business of anyone else. If Kid A is on the computer Kids B and C have to leave A alone.

    So if Junior wants one afternoon of uninterrupted time a week for some long involved game, he can have it without the other two hanging over his shoulder waiting for their turn and hollering "Mom, he's played for 46 minutes now instead of 45!"

    Posted by di July 1, 10 12:42 PM
  1. Wow, is it really that hard? My children know the rules about our family computer. They also know that if they continue to whine about it after I have told them no they will be punished. Punishments are usually a reduction or totally removal of the next days computer time. I only had to use this on my 8yr old daughter once and my 14 yr. old son twice, they learned very quickly mom means business.
    Setting firm rules and sticking to them no matter how much they complain is my gameplan with almost everything.

    Posted by Sherry July 1, 10 06:57 PM
  1. Kids learn by example not by what you say. If you don't want them to use the computer too much or watch too much TV, don't use the computer or watch TV too much yourself.

    I wish computers had to feature to let the system administrator (which should always be the parent) specify which times of day and for how many hours a day and/or week a given user account can be logged in.

    And now I realize what a hypocrite I'm being. I've been on this machine far too long today. That's raising a flag. I'm shutting it off and going for a walk.

    Posted by Mark July 1, 10 07:56 PM
  1. I believe that the extent to which young people become entranced by the adventure, discovery and excitement of video games mirrors the extent to which they lack those things in their real lives. The answer to this, of course, is to brainstorm real-time activities that your children will enjoy. High intensity kids might take to paintball, geocaching, or adventure bike rides. For lower energy kids, legitimate opportunities for exploration might fit the bill. When we become too entranced by the offerings of the cyber world, it is often because of a lack of certain things in our lives.

    Posted by kevinjroberts July 1, 10 08:45 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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