Wes: A few weeks ago we discussed how to introduce cell phones to preteens. While planning another article in the series, I had occasion to spend time with my son on the computer. He told me that we needed to go to a certain gaming site, explaining that he’d seen it on Cartoon Network. He described his understanding of how the game worked and asked me to add it to his favorites folder. I suggested that before he was allowed to play he had to show granny one more time how to navigate her online banking by clicking on the blue underlined links with her mouse. He reluctantly agreed. Granny is 83. My son is 5.
His disproportionate share of computer knowledge reminds me that where computers are concerned, we cannot wait until our kids reach the preteen years to begin the introduction. Computers and video games are not like cell phones nor even iPods. The perfection of point-and-click technology makes it possible for any child who has sufficient coordination to tap a mouse or track pad and make just about any dream come true. In this way these technologies are really the new TV — accessible to every age group. In fact back in my youth, the great Satan was the “boob tube” in the living room that spewed out a vast wasteland of mind-numbing crap to unwitting kids, interspersed with ads for cheap toys and sugar-based cereal. Parents were warned about the dangers of this electronic baby sitter. The government even intervened to create PBS and “family viewing time” for networks in the early evening, with little success.
Kids still watch TV, and the array of kids shows and networks has grown in size and often in quality. But today’s big mind-bender is clearly the computer and video game console. Unfortunately, this often leads to a kind of Faustian bargain between kids and parents. As with TV, it’s easy for parents to use these gizmos to occupy kids while they carry on their busy lives. On their end, kids are entranced with these technologies in ways that go beyond my reckoning. I spent a lot of my youth shooting space invaders, asteroids and pinball bumpers, but never with that much fervor.
As always, if you lose control of technology early on, it’s incredibly hard to turn back now, so it’s never too early. With kids under 8, the best way to introduce video and computer games is to explain that they are like dessert. After we’ve completed the important things of the day, like exercise, learning, rest and family activities, games are a way to have fun for a little while. Since we don’t eat the whole cake after dinner, we also don’t play video games for six hours a day. Likewise, the activity of rest should be emphasized as equally important to play and work. Sleep is the most crucial behavior we try to avoid as teens and adults. Because of their intense, exciting and thought-provoking design, video games are no good before bed. Require kids and early teens to have a buffer time of at least an hour between the end of gaming and sleep. Sometimes it’s useful to sandwich game time, so kids play right after school when they need some nonacademic down time. Then they eat dinner, do homework, play outside, etc. Then they can do gaming for an hour to 90 minutes before the buffer.
Getting started in these habits before kids hit the age of 8 is critically important and, as with everything else in parenting, a thousand times easier than waiting until problems arise. If and when they do, don’t be afraid to box the system or lock out the games on the computer. No one has been arrested for child abuse because they set a pass code on “the box.”
Kelly: Society has become overwhelmed with the advancement of technology. Constantly, new products are developed and passed down for our viewing pleasure, making us craving them even more. Marketing sells to every age group from young children to the elderly. We’ve put no age limit on technology, making it readily available to anyone who can afford it.
For parents, raising children in a society where materialism seems to be the center of the universe can be quite difficult. If one child gets a cell phone or computer, practically the whole school will have one by the end of the week. But when do we say enough is enough? Is it when you notice your children’s social skills have deteriorated considerably because they are too enthralled with their latest video game? Or perhaps you notice their joy depends on how big the present is?
Yes, my generation is known for keeping up with the latest technology craze, and with it, we should be thankful for how many opportunities have been opened for us. On the other hand, not many people realize how easily we take advantage of what we have. We have become so emotionally attached to these inanimate objects that if we happen to break or lose a cell phone or computer, all hell seems to breaks loose. I think it’s time we need to move away from that.
As parents, I understand wanting the best for your children. Yet, you can give your children so much more without having to put a dent in your wallet. If you do chose to provide them with these technologies, be sure to provide structure and routine also, especially at an early age. If watching TV, playing video games or playing on the computer consumes most of their time, be sure to provide them with alternative options. Perhaps set up a play date or have them walk the dog. Whatever it is, keep them busy and off the technology for a while.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.