Parents face a new frontier: Setting electronic limits

The satellite television in the family car is just one more place where parents need to monitor their children's viewing time.
The satellite television in the family car is just one more place where parents need to monitor their children's viewing time. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Liza Mundy
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fatima Nascone, a mother of four in Highland, thought she had done a good job limiting the proliferation of electronic devices in her household. There was a time, it's true, when the household TV was on for meals, but she'd put a stop to that. 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, guiltily, that there was one device 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." So 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.

For her, as for so many parents, 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 this week by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, it's a task that is becoming increasingly hard for parents: Children from 8 to 18 spend 7.5 hours a day engaged with some type of media, up from 6.5 five years ago. And thanks to the wonders of multitasking -- the ability to watch TV while listening to their iPods, say, or e-mail while watching YouTube -- into that period of time they actually manage to pack almost eleven hours of screen time. The upshot is that on average, children spend more time each week consuming media -- about 53 hours -- more time than their parents spend at work.

"Use of every type of media has increased over the past 10 years," with the exception of print reading, which has decreased, the study notes, pointing out that children who are heavy media users tend to have worse grades and be less content. The study also found that parents who put the brakes on screen time 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."

This presents quite a challenge: Many parents want their children to have some Internet facility, so the question becomes 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 is the father of 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, says Agger, "I'm also one of those tiresome reading snobs."

The rules change

For the most part, parents realize 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, a Silver Spring mother whose son, Patrick, was born in 1994. Clark remembers getting her husband to buy a beeper in case she went into labor, because that was the only form of instant communications technology available at the time.

"That's what's happened between then and now -- there was virtually no Internet, no cellphones," she says. "We're living in an entirely different world, and as parents, we're making it up as we go along."

For her part, making it up has meant that the rules have changed as her son, now 15, has grown older: When he was in elementary school, she had a no-TV-on-school-nights-unless-it's-the-Olympics rule, and she also refused to buy videogame consoles. "But now this stuff oozes through everywhere." Patrick, if he wants, can play videogames on his cellphone and watch TV shows on his iPod. Like many parents, 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? "How much time is appropriate for him to sit there and watch guitar videos? I don't know. Is that educational? Is it preventing him from getting enough exercise?"

Overall, Clark has found that the best approach is mutual limit-setting, where mother and son negotiated an agreement. Beginning in high school, she let Patrick have a cellphone, but she made him pay for the monthly plan with money from his allowance and a petsitting job; so if he wanted unlimited texting, he would bear the cost. And she would not allow him to have an Internet connection on his phone. She finally approved a Facebook page the summer before high school. For the most, part it has been working fine, though he does have problems with kids who text him constantly. ""These are powerful tools in the hands of kids," whose impulse control might not be fully developed, Clark says. "Here they have these extraordinarily powerful tools that we don't really know how to make use of. That's a lot of responsibility for them."

She thinks that kids secretly understand and appreciate the limits that are set: If she'd let him have a cellphone in middle school, or spend lots of time playing videogames, he might not have had so much time to pursue his music.

There are other things parents can do, according to Patricia Cancellier, the education coordinator for the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. For example, she says, computers and televisions should be in the "public space of the home and not in bedrooms," and whatever parental controls are available should be used. "You don't want to 100 percent cut out" all time on the Internet or Facebook, but you do want to restrict it. Cellphones can be turned off at certain hours so a child is not constantly reachable; the parent can retain the right to look at e-mails and texts, and delete those contacts in particular 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."

Different devices become the most fought over, depending on the household. For Anne Fothergill's two boys, 8 and 10, it was the Wii that was incessantly desirable. So "we've made up a silly name for it," she said. They refer to it as the "Wiikend," meaning that it can only be played on -- you guessed it.

A parental example?

Then there is the tricky question of what kind of an example parents themselves 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 the parenting Web site D.C. Urban Moms and Dads. Steele sets timers on his two boys' computer sessions, deliberately did not buy a game console and limits the amount of time the boys can watch television or TiVo.

Even so, he can't deny that his kids are constantly seeing him on the computer; after all, that's not only his avocation -- it's the family vocation. "My wife gets on me sometimes about that, but sometimes she's just as bad," he says. And the proliferation of devices makes it hard to control. Both parents have laptops for work, and recently they got the kids a Macintosh Mini. Then Steele upgraded his laptop, and his older son wanted to know if he could have the old, beat-up one.

One day he and his wife were sitting around, and she nudged him. Steele looked up to see that "I was sitting with my laptop, and my wife was sitting with hers, and my older son was sitting with his laptop, and my younger son was on the Mac Mini."

"All four of us were sitting there, using computers."

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