Managing Computer Time

Part of helping adolescents to become responsible young adults is encouraging them to develop good self-management skills, including the ability to plan, use their time wisely, regulate themselves, and practice good self-discipline. While this has always been a challenge for hormonally charged, impulse-ridden teens and tweens, the explosion of computer technology has made all this that much more difficult. That is because being on the Internet, playing games and, especially, talking to friends and acquaintances via instant messaging has replaced the family telephone and even the personal cell phone to become the virtual conduit of teenage social interaction—in other words, a highly addictive activity resistant to parental intervention.

Helping daughters to manage their computer usage first requires assessing their present skills. There is no magic age when girls are ready to assume responsibility. Whereas some 12- or 14-year-olds are self-disciplined, others get carried away and spend time online when they should be doing their homework or sleeping. If your daughter is doing well, no parental intervention may be required. Still, it probably is wise to have general guidelines about where, when, and the amount of time kids are expected to use computers in the home, just as you would do for television, video games, and so forth.

Often, parents first became alarmed about excessive computer use when they see declining report cards. The first impulse is to say, “No more computer! No more IM-ing!” However, this brings to mind the old Chinese proverb, “Don’t kill a fly with a hatchet.” Without computer privileges, teen girls feel terribly disconnected from their peers, so much so that without the ability to clarify social exchanges that occurred during the school day, find out why a classmate may have given them a “look” in the hallway, or help a friend, they remain too preoccupied to actually do their homework, Others feel so cut off from their peers that they become desperate enough to sneak around and lie in order to reconnect.

It is better to teach the principle of “Everything in moderation.” The computer offers a good training ground for self-control and time management. If your daughter needs help in this area, present it as a skill she needs to learn rather than a punishment. Until she can monitor herself better, you will have to assist her. Of course, the best time to establish boundaries is when girls are young; it only gets harder as they get older, set in their ways, and increasingly interested in autonomy.

There are few hard and fast rules. Instead, each family has to consider their daughters’ ages, needs, and skills, and then decide what makes the most sense at any given time. As but one example, you might specify that your daughter is allowed to use the computer after 8:30 PM, between 8 and 9 PM, or for a total of one hour per day. Whatever your guidelines, they will probably have to be revisited frequently and revised as needed.

One all-too-common quandary is whether teens can effectively do their homework while also IM-ing their friends, listening to music, and/or watching TV. Although your daughter may insist that she is perfectly capable of doing many things at once, you may have your doubts. It is wise to be skeptical; multi-tasking is a myth, as human brains are able to focus on only one thing at a time. This generation of teens are pros at switching their attention back and forth extremely rapidly. That is not an advantage, however, for homework that requires a high level of sustained concentration.

For some girls, the temptation to see who of their various acquaintances are online is too great. Then it is wise to separate social-related computer time from homework-related computer time. For some families, this is accomplished with different computers, one in their bedrooms for assignments and another, with Internet access, in a family area such as kitchen or den.

If you do restrict your daughter’s Internet use, do so in a reasonable and fair-minded manner to preserve the good will in your relationship. Also, it is best to give her a specific time frame when you will re-evaluate her ability to resume her privileges. In fact, girls usually are encouraged to become more self-reliant and self-disciplined when they are given praise about what they are doing right, and opportunities to earn more computer time or autonomy along with parental trust.

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