The help desk: My children are addicted to computers - should I restrict their time online?

  • @louisa_saunders

Q. I have a son aged 12 and a daughter of 14. I'm devoted to both of them but I'm becoming extremely frustrated by their addiction to computers. My 14-year-old daughter in particular seems almost obsessed and this is a cause of quite a lot of conflict in our house. I restrict her time on the internet (including iPhones) to an hour a day (half-an-hour for my son), but they're resentful and always trying to get around it, and it's getting more and more difficult to police.

I know they like to keep in touch with what their friends are doing, but I get depressed seeing them doing something so mindless that's such a drain on their time. They say all their friends are allowed unlimited use of computers, though I'm not sure if this is really true. My husband says they should do what they want as long as their homework is done, though he goes along with my rules. Am I being too strict and how can we stop fighting about this?

A. I have to say your rules sound draconian to me. But I'm aware that I may be more laissez-faire about these things than most, and I doubt it's true what your children say about their friends. Still, we've never had set restrictions in our house, so here am I, your perfect devil's advocate, and here is my advice.

Get them out of their rooms and encourage them to use their computers in your presence. Then you'll know what they're actually doing. This is key. It is certainly wrong to assume that everything your children do on a computer is inferior to "real" activities. You could end up shooting yourself in the foot: "Darling, do stop writing that novel and come and bake some cupcakes with me instead."

Respect their social lives. To you, an hour online may sound like plenty of time to commune with one's social network. To a teenager, that's virtually Amish. Understand that social networking is intrinsic to their lives. Yes, you'd rather they were learning about particle physics on SciShow than just skulking around on Tumblr, but without the latter they might never have come across the former.

Your worries should be: bullying, paedophiles (pathetically easy to spot, my daughters say) and gaming addiction, which really does drain time. If gaming's the problem, tackle that with your restrictions.

Finally, don't be a hypocrite. How much time do you spend online when you could be reading Proust?

And how has the free-for-all worked for us? Nothing bad has happened. There were a few hairy moments when they were younger (ever tried Googling Dick and Dom?), but they gulp down books (made of actual paper), make use of the great outdoors within reason, can take or leave gaming and have made lots of friends – some of them in far-flung places and many of whom they've got to know in real life.

My experience is that, even when given free rein, there's a limit to children's tolerance of screen time and, as they gain more independence, they'll want to get out and about with friends more. Then you'll have a whole new set of things to worry about.

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