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Parental control of electronics a daunting task

WASHINGTON — Fatima Nascone, a mother of four, thought she had done a good job limiting the effect of electronic devices at home. She'd put a stop to having the TV on during meals. Her two older sons, 7 and 8, had Nintendo DS hand-held devices, but she restricted their use to half an hour a day on weekends. And nobody was allowed to surf the Internet unsupervised.

But this summer, she realized that she wasn't monitoring the TV in the family car. Letting the brood watch TV as she drove them to and from school was, she confesses, a way to "have peace and quiet." One day, she and her husband, Jason, sat the kids down and told them: "It's not going to happen anymore. We're going to have conversations." The TV is now mostly reserved for road trips.

It was one step in a ceaseless effort to control her kids' consumption of electronic media — not end it entirely, but simply reduce it to a reasonable level.

According to a study released recently by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the task is becoming increasingly hard for parents: Children ages 8 to 18 spend 7.5 hours a day engaged with some type of media, up from 6.5 hours five years ago. And thanks to multitasking — the ability to watch TV while listening to iPods, say, or e-mail while watching YouTube — they manage to pack in almost 11 hours of screen time. On average, children consume media about 53 hours a week — more time than their parents spend at work.

"Use of every type of media has increased over the past 10 years," except for print reading, which has decreased, and children who use media heavily tend to have worse grades and be less content, the study says. It also found that parents can have an impact: "Children whose parents make an effort to limit media use — through the media environment they create in the home and the rules they set — spend less time with media than their peers."

Many parents want their kids to have some Internet facility, so the question is where to draw the line. "I spend my entire day in front of a screen," says Michael Agger, who writes about online media for Slate and has a 4-year-old boy who has started to play games on dad's iPhone. "Part of me thinks, well, it can't hurt to be computer literate, since he will be manipulating one of these things for the rest of his life." On the other hand, Agger says, "I'm also one of those tiresome reading snobs."

For the most part, parents realize that they can't ban media devices entirely, even if they want to. "This is here to stay: We have to deal with it, so how do you regulate it?" says Sue Clark of Silver Spring, Md., whose son, Patrick, is 15. "We're living in an entirely different world, and as parents, we're making it up as we go along."

For her, the rules have changed as her son has grown older: When he was in elementary school, the rule was no TV on school nights unless it's the Olympics, and she refused to buy video-game consoles. "But now this stuff oozes through everywhere." Patrick can play video games on his cell phone and watch TV shows on his iPod. Clark recognizes the benefits of technology: Her son is a dedicated musician who plays drums, guitar, bass and saxophone, and there are lots of Internet resources to help him hone his skills. The question is, how much is too much?

Clark has found that the best approach is mutual limit-setting, in which mother and son negotiate an agreement. Beginning in high school, she let Patrick have a cell phone (without an Internet connection), but she made him pay for the monthly plan. For the most part, it has worked fine, although he does have problems with kids who text him constantly.

There are other things parents can do, says Patricia Cancellier, education coordinator for the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Md. For example, computers and TVs should be in the "public space of the home and not in bedrooms," and available parental controls should be used, she says. "You don't want to 100 percent cut out" all time on the Internet or Facebook, but you do want to restrict it. Cell phones can be turned off at certain hours so a child is not constantly reachable; the parent can retain the right to look at e-mail and texts and to delete contacts from someone the child does not know. "If you present the problem as, 'It's strangers having constant access to you, and here's how we might solve that,' kids are a little more likely to go along with it."

Then there is the example parents set. Lots of parents have jobs that involve a great deal of screen time, not to mention BlackBerrys and other smart phones. "I'm cognizant that I'm probably setting a bad example for the kids in some regard," says Jeff Steele, who with his wife, Maria Sokurashvili, administers a parenting Web site.