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Computer Time for All Ages

Welcome to On Parenting's occasional guest blog feature, where we welcome parenting bloggers from around the Web. If you'd like to join the guest blogging party here at On Parenting, please e-mail

By Leticia Barr

Since I began writing about children and technology, I've been asked many questions. One recurring topic is structuring time on the computer.

My neighbor with two teenagers wants to devise a way to keep her son off of the computer. When I meet moms for park playdates, they want me to determine how much time their preschooler should spend playing games at PBS Kids. Parents of my first-grade students used to ask if the computer could be used to complete homework. Being a technology advocate, I always allowed the use of the computer but realized that not all students in my class had access to one at home. One local moms listserv recently discussed downloadable software that can be purchased and installed to shut down the computer after a certain amount of time. Software could be helpful, but the same effects can be obtained from setting a kitchen timer or giving your child verbal cues.

The American Association of Pediatrics strongly urges parents to generally limit all children's use of video and computer games to no more than 1 or 2 hours per day. How can parents structure, or limit, the amount of time children spend on the computer? There is no one answer since the child's age dictates the computer's purpose. The way a preschooler uses the computer is completely different from how a teenager utilizes it.

Preschoolers are just beginning to use the computer. They make sense of their world through imitation and play and, when their parents use computers, they are compelled to use one, too. A preschooler tends to use the computer for educational games, Web sites and software. The amount of time a preschooler spends on the computer seems to be self regulated due to a limited attention span.

In our house, our 4-year-old daughter spends the majority of her computer time on educational Web sites I have prescreened for her use. When evaluating Web sites, I look for sites that are easy for our daughter to navigate, have age-appropriate educational content, and few or no ads. Our daughter loves playing word games with her favorite SuperWhy characters on PBSKids and creating stories about Clifford through the interactive story books found on Scholastic's Teacher site. She also enjoys supplementing books we read to her with One More Story, an online library of favorite stories that can be read to her on-demand. She also likes viewing digital pictures and pretends to blog or send e-mail using Microsoft Word. Our daughter seems to want to spend a maximum of half an hour on the computer at a time before abandoning it in favor of drawing, dress-up or cooking for lavish pretend tea parties.

Teens use computers in completely different ways than younger children. For middle or high school students, a computer is both a social networking and productivity tool. When I was in high school, making plans with friends on a Friday night meant calling everyone on the phone, tying up my parent's line for hours to figure out who was free, what we were going to do, what time to meet, etc. These days, friends follow each other through Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. A single 140 character message, or "tweet," on Twitter can instantly alert all friends in a person's network, eliminating the need to make endless phone calls.

On the productivity side, students and parents in Montgomery County schools use EdLine, a Web-based grade reporting system that also acts as communicator between school and home. Parents can come onto EdLine and monitor grades. Students can access assignments from anywhere. Plus, online subscription databases in the county have become homework resources. ProQuest, Student Resource Center and Ebsco give students access to the most current research for their assignments. NetTrekker combines teacher reviewed Web sites with state curriculum standards to provide students with a safe online searching experience. Various perspectives on past historical events are debated by Issues & Controversies while Encyclopaedia Britannica Online School Edition replaces print encyclopedias and is available in four languages.

All this teen computer use makes it difficult to limit the time they spend in front of the screen. Like it or not, the computer is a necessity for teens. Unfortunately for my neighbor, I don't have any great advice about how to keep her teenage son off the computer and away from computer games, but at least he's not addicted to Twitter -- yet.

Leticia Barr blogs on, a blog designed to explore technology issues that affect children and help parents select quality technology products for their children. Leticia is a former first-grade teacher with a background in early childhood education and classroom technology integration.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  April 15, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Guest Blogs , Preschoolers , Teens
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This is really helpful!

Posted by: Silver Spring mom | April 15, 2008 8:17 AM | Report abuse

"Unfortunately for my neighbor, I don't have any great advice about how to keep her teenage son off the computer and away from computer games"

It's called a job. The child earns money in exchange for services. Those services tend to take up time otherwise spent on the computer.

Posted by: badoop | April 15, 2008 8:18 AM | Report abuse

We give each of our children a laptop when they enter high school. This is partly to make sure that we can access the family desktop computer without fighting children, and it's partly to get them to start dealing with responsibility and privilege.

The rules imposed on them are:
1 - no computers in private spaces (bedrooms). Computers are only used in public areas where at any time someone can walk by and see what they're doing.
2 - I have the administrator password; they do not.
3 - I don't use filtering software because I know for a fact that most of it is cheap garbage that doesn't work. (Designing and analyzing computer networks of all kinds is what I do for a living; I've been doing it for over 25 years.) Nonetheless, should I want to I can record and look at every keystroke they type. I won't do that unless they give me a reason to.
4 - File-sharing services such as KaZAA and Gnutella are verboten. I don't want to deal with the RIAA or the MPAA.
5 - All iTunes purchases are made on a single account, linked to my credit card so that I get the receipt. I'd better not see a song purchased with an "adult lyrics" warning.
6 - There are no set time limits on computer usage. Use of a computer for legitimate homework activities is always permitted. Use of a computer for social/recreational purposes is loosely monitored; usually one of the parents will notice that you've been spending too much time on the computer and kick you off/kick you outdoors/give you chores to occupy your time.
7 - No interactions with strangers on Facebook. If you're getting Facebooked by somebody you don't know, I want to know about it. (Yes, "facebook" has been verbed!) (MySpace is so, like, 20 minutes ago. Nobody's on MySpace any more except old folks and businesses marketing themselves.)

Those are the major ones. There are a few minor rules which we can implement when we want. In the kids' minds these rules are harsh, arbitrary and unfair, of course, but that's the way all rules are.

And there is a set of rules for cell phones, particularly text messages, as well. They sometimes spend more time texting and pixing on their cellphones than they do on the computers.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | April 15, 2008 8:45 AM | Report abuse

I may be in the minority, but my children (almost 4 and almost 6) do not get regular computer time. I just don't see the need and would rather they read. The infrequent times when my son is allowed (we're talking maybe 3 times within the last 6 months), he has zero problem navigating and using the mouse and figuring things out. I am not concerned he will be behind in school -- or anything, frankly. This will probably change when he starts kindergarten, but it will not be more than 15-30 minutes on any given day, and I don't ever see a reason for a child to be online for more than 1-2 hours a day, even with homework.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | April 15, 2008 8:47 AM | Report abuse

What about computer programs or websites for one year olds? Mine is very, very interested in electronic gadgets and computers.

Posted by: Ishgibble | April 15, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Other than telling the kids to get off the computers to do another activitylike go to bed or go outside and play, I let my kids have unrestricted access to the computers. They have been trained in safety/security - never give out personal information to strangers, never load software before getting permission, and just a few others.

Although I've showed them how to get to the router logs which lists all the web sites that have been visited over a period of time, if I wanted to know what they were doing with the laptop, I would just knock on their bedroom door and ask.

As far as my kindergartener goes, he has his own account that he logs on to. It has links to his favorite games and web site - nik, sesame street, hotwheels, and I'll add a few more tonight. He's getting to know the keyboard pretty well, and like his brother and sister before him, he'll be composing and typing full sentences by the 2nd grade.

I have very few rules, but I reserve the right to make them up as I go along. It sure makes for easier parenting and seems to be working quite well so far.

Posted by: DandyLion | April 15, 2008 10:05 AM | Report abuse

My daughter (8yo) is not very interested in the computer. She used to like Webkinz but has moved on to the Wii. Even these things she isn't interested in more than a half hour to hour max on the weekends. Her I-Pod is on my I-Tunes account so I know exactly what she is listening to (mostly HSM, etc.). She'll be required to have a notebook computer in fourth grade so things may change then but I'm not too worried yet.
I played computer games a lot more at her age when I was a kid and I turned out okay. I think the problem isn't the amount of time kids spend on the computer and game machines but rather the content of what they are looking at. Space Invaders and Frogger on the Atarii have been replaced with extremely realistic graphics on games about killing and stealing cars. Yikes!!

Posted by: 21117 | April 15, 2008 10:49 AM | Report abuse

My nephews were napping on my lap as I surfed the web. They were able to navigate with a mouse before they could walk.

But their mom won't let them have email accounts to email with me :(

I will recommend LiveJournal- pre myspace and facebook. It's much more content oriented rather than splashy colors and migraine backgrounds and sexy pics.

Otherwise I think the main issues to be concerned about are building up reasonable expectations based on cyber communication and using good safety measures in what you share. However, I know adults with kids who constantly break all those rules themselves so good luck.

Posted by: Liz D | April 15, 2008 2:14 PM | Report abuse

I asked my son's pediatrician why he shouldn't be allowed to use a computer to read and play word-related videogames. She said that kids are becoming obese by getting positive feedback from videogames and not playing sports. What about the kids reading Harry Potter and not playing sports? Why not ban books I ask? The doctor stopped and said, yes, technically you should limit your kids to no more than 1-2 hours of book time. Then she said she was wrong, and educational books could be read for longer... basically there is NO reason to limit your kids computer time as long as they're healthy and get good grades. I mean, it's not like they don't need those skills to succeed in the workplace.

Posted by: DCer | April 15, 2008 9:49 PM | Report abuse

ArmyBrat and DandyLion-
Your wealth of experience shows in the rules you set in computer usage in your home. Your children know that if needed, you could see exactly what they are doing on the computer but you have established a culture of trust in your home. I'm a big Facebook fan and think MySpace is more like last week's news!

Check out my website: for some suggestions about things you could do with your 1 year old. Despite being interested in the computer, children of this age should not be on the computer. Of course there are many companies marketing computer software to this age but very little of it is of any value. I have a 20 month old son and he is only interested in slapping at the keyboard, whacking the mouse on the desk, or seeing what his sister is doing for 2 secs before running away.

I agree that reading is incredibly important however, the use of technology by schools is increasing and the ways computers are being used to enhance instruction has changed education dramatically. While I would like to say that it is possible to limit a teen's use of the computer to 1-2 hours even for homework, I don't think that is possible. There are some wonderful benefits to using technology for homework such as off-site collaboration. Creating a group on Facebook allows students to collaborate on group projects with ease outside of school.

I think it is a shame that your nephews weren't allowed to send you e-mail. While they don't need their own accounts, e-mail is a form of written communication that is a lifelong skill. Our 4 year old loves sending e-mails to her grandparents in California. She also likes sending and receiving letters via snail mail. Both methods of communication are ways of allowing her to practice writing. Now go print this out and show it to your nephew's parents! :)

Posted by: Leticia- Tech Savvy Mama | April 15, 2008 9:52 PM | Report abuse

I wonder what our pediatrician would say if asked the same thing. I think I'll make a mental note to ask during our next visit. Great point about the fact that sitting around reading all day makes one as sedentary as sitting at the computer! I think it all comes back to finding healthy balance between all activities your kids are involved in.

Posted by: Leticia- Tech Savvy Mama | April 15, 2008 9:55 PM | Report abuse

For those with younger children I have the following insight: limit or eliminate screen time. To be sure, well-chosen computer games are can be useful for your kids, just as well-chosen TV programs can. The reason to limit screen time, even drastically, for preschoolers and elementary-age children, is that they get so much more benefit from other activities - specifically, learning to amuse themselves and making up games on their own. I think that's a young-child capacity that recedes, or is crowded out as they grow older and busier, and it is wise to let them use and develop this capacity while they're little kids. Ever watch an 8-year-old footle around with string, sticks, rocks, cards, and toy pieces to make up something new every day, while humming or talking to himself? Screen time takes away from that. I'm just a mom - not a child development expert - but I sense that the "footling" is vital and valuable.

As for becoming computer-savvy: really, any 12-year-old will figure out how to navigate at the drop of a hat, and they'll "catch up" to their peers within two weeks. THey have the rest of their lives to sit in front of a screen. So delay it and prefer the more creative interactions of childhood.

Posted by: katy | April 16, 2008 4:15 AM | Report abuse


I fully agree with you! You'll notice on my blog ( I've had quite the dilemma regarding our daughter inheriting grandma's old computer. My main concern was that it would dramatically reduce her imaginative play but it doesn't seem to have had any effect. Today we spent a good part of the morning playing on a wooded trail making squirrel nests and playing school among tiny pine trees. She "knitted" with sticks and leaves.

While they do have the rest of their lives to sit in front of a screen, there are benefits to interactive learning that the computer can provide. Check out my site for my recommendations on great sites for kids (Website of the Week) and a recent post about qualities to look for in good websites.

I agree that it is important to limit screen time for our youngest kids to make sure that there is that natural discovery time exists. After all, isn't that what being a kid is all about?

Posted by: Leticia- Tech Savvy Mama | April 16, 2008 11:28 PM | Report abuse

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