The Downside of the Net: Exercise Caution When Giving Your Child Access

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(The Vancouver Sun, May 20, 2002)

Q: Last December, my husband and I bought our fourteen year old son a computer for Christmas. For the most part, it was a decision we have not regretted. Recently however, we have not been able to get him off the darn thing. He is surfing the net from the minute he gets home from school until dinner. Most nights he gets back on immediately after dinner. My husband thinks this is alright. He feels he is becoming skilled at something that could give him en edge in the job market. I am concerned he has stopped doing anything else. He used to want to hang out with his friends. I can’t stop worrying about the amount of time he is online and what he is doing while online. If I ask him he just says he is looking stuff up. I’m not getting much support for this concern from either my son or husband. Any ideas?

GT Coquitlam, BC

Teresa & Saleema: We have received many comments and questions from parents regarding this very topic. Cut this column out and tape it to your fridge. You may find you get more support for your concerns. Although we are of course aware of the countless ways the internet can benefit children and teens, we strongly suggest parents provide internet access to their kids exercising caution and boundaries. Recent studies have linked excessive time spent online to a rise in teen depression, isolation, emotional immaturity and increased suicide risks. We are hearing about teens spending anywhere from 15-35 hours a week online. In our opinion, this constitutes an addiction. Though IAD or internet addiction disorder is not yet an official diagnosis, it is being considered for the next diagnostic statistical manual. IAD is a term commonly being used in reference to many young teens. A basic definition is internet use that is interfering in destructive ways with aspects of the individual’s life or well being. Warning signs that the amount of time your teen is spending in cyber space is becoming unhealthy are:

  • change in your teen’s attitude
  • decline in self care or physical fitness
  • decrease in time spent formerly with friends, family, or in extra curricular activities (many parents rightfully so fear their children are substituting cyber relationships for real ones)
  • spending long hours online
  • loss of sleep due to time on line
  • school grades dropping
  • compulsive checking of emails, chat rooms
  • resistance to letting any other household member go online.

If this describes your teen, you may want to try some or all of the following tips. 1) Keep the computer in a high traffic area in the home. You can monitor exactly how much time is being spent more readily from a common room in the house rather than your teen’s bedroom. 2) Use daily and weekly time limits for time online that is not school related. Don’t be afraid to set some boundaries. Chances are you pay for the internet. Put limits on the time allowed online. One family had a rule of a weekly time limit. So… if you use all your time in the first two days you are done for the week. 3) Have computer curfews. For example, you could set a household rule that the computer needs to be shut off by a certain time in the evening. 4) Agree on consequences if the limits are broken. Keep in mind consequences are only effective when followed through on. One idea may be that for every minute the curfew is broken, two minutes is taken off tomorrow’s curfew time. 5) Check in on what they’re doing while on line. We talk a lot as a society about how important it is to know where our children are and what they are doing. In cyber space, they can physically be in the living room but virtually be anywhere they choose- without any supervision. Walk by and check what is on the screen every now and then. 6) Learn how to trace the history of where your teen has been surfing. 7) Install blocking software. 8) Keep an eye on your credit card bills. If one of your worries is what type of web sites your son is surfing, check your bills carefully. We have heard of kids running up huge bills on some rather unsavory sites.

In one recent study, Time magazine estimated 82% of teens have been online in a chatroom, 44% seen a sex website, and 14% seen how to make a bomb. They estimate there will be over 42 million North American teens online by 2003. Four great reasons why it is becoming increasingly important we know what teens are doing while online.