Virginia Ironside’s Dilemmas: My daughter spends nearly all her spare time on the internet,

Dear Virginia,

My daughter, who's nine, spends nearly all her spare time on the internet, chatting to her friends – or people she thinks of as her friends. I have tried to limit her time online, but when I do, she gets into such a state that I find it quite distressing. She also says "everybody does it". Other parents I've spoken to don't seem to worry about this issue and say it's just how children are these days. Am I out of touch? I can't believe it's good for her.

Yours sincerely, Bella

Although it would be a shame if your daughter felt completely left out of things that all her friends were doing, you mustn't forget, Bella, that you are her mother and it's your responsibility to offer your young daughter guidance on how to live her life until she's old enough to do things for herself. And remember, too, that your feelings about the time she spends on Facebook or other sites, are not in the least unreasonable. If you were to say that you wished her to get up at five every morning, scrub the floors, make the breakfast and, on her return from school, wait on your hand and foot dressed as a penguin, for instance, then clearly you'd be off your head to insist. But honestly, it sounds as if your feelings are simply those of a normal parent.

In other words, she may get carried away by the argument that "everybody does it" or "every other parent allows it", but you're an adult and you needn't be swayed by this. Maybe some parents are too frightened or careless to insist on restricting their children's time on the computer. That doesn't mean that you have to follow their example.

You say your daughter gets upset when you tell her to restrict the time she spends at the computer. As a result you get distressed. Well, of course you get distressed. It's horrible seeing a child upset, and particularly horrible when it's because of something you've done. But if you can hold fast, stay calm and not hysterical, and just say that while it's fine for, say, an hour a day, or whatever you think is right, but more than that is too much for the moment, then soon she'll get the message. You just have to ride the storm. If you want to show you're not being completely inflexible you might want, later, to say she can have another half hour a day at weekends, but that's that.

What you've got to do, though, is to organise other things for her to do. It's no good just sticking her in front of the telly, or telling her she's got to get her own interests. You may find that you have to spend far more time lugging her and her friends off to museums, or making things, or cooking, or paying for acting or music classes, or just interacting with her. It's up to you to make her realise that that living life in the real can be far more exhilarating and exciting than just talking to people through a screen.

You're not being cruel. You're not insisting she join some ghastly sect. You're not punishing her. You're just trying your best to bring her up properly, and teaching her the golden lesson of self-restraint.

Readers say...

Online friends are fine

I've just returned from a wedding of two of the most intelligent and friendly people I know. Earlier in the week I went for a meal with close friends, most of whom I've know for more than 10 years. Almost all these people I met online. You seem to believe friendships can't be formed online, but that is, frankly, wrong. I know several that have led to house-shares, business partnerships and even marriages. It may be that your daughter is shy and that talking online is easier for her. The thing you must stress is to be safe: never to give out her address or school, and if she ever decides to meet her friends it must be with you, in a public place.

Susannah, by email

She needs a real life

If your daughter was spending nearly all of her spare time attempting to drink bleach or stick forks into electrical sockets, presumably, you'd put a stop to this negative behaviour, no matter what kind of a state she got herself into.

You are responsible for your own child and you are not "off the hook" because of the attitude of other parents. My children, aged 12 and five, have no unsupervised access to the internet. They have access to real friends in their respective peer groups – Guides, Beaver Scouts, hockey, football, after-school drama, debating. At home, after homework, they have musical instruments, books, music, films, two big dogs and a mum and dad who would never let them roam alone among strangers in the real world or a virtual one.

Jennifer Buchan, Renfrewshire


Take control

You need to remember who is the grown-up here. Children will always try the "so-and-so's mother said" card but in the end what matters is what you think is right. It's not good for a nine-year-old to spend "nearly all her spare time" on the internet. Tell her what you feel is reasonable and ask her opinion. Then reach an agreement,and stick to it. Communication and respect for each other will help you through the teenage years with your daughter, but in the end some good old-fashioned rules do bring stability to a child's life.

Kay, By email

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