Unplug your kids from the computer now

How much screen time is too much? How do you set guidelines everyone can stick to? And how do you keep your children safe online?

Computers are a big part of modern life, and are great for helping kids to learn. They can also be a lot of fun. But there are potential pitfalls. No one wants their child to miss out on physical activities, neglect their schoolwork or, worst of all, be exposed to unsuitable material and shady characters online.

1. What’s right for your child?

There are no hard and fast rules about exactly how long a child should spend on the computer, and you are the best judge of what’s right.

Here are a few of the questions it’s worth taking into account:

• Does your child’s game-playing interfere with schoolwork and other activities?
• Are they taking regular screen breaks to avoid problems such as eye strain and poor posture?
• Is your child exhibiting more than the usual mood swings?
• Is your child getting plenty of physical exercise?

2. Set screen time limits

Once you’ve determined how much time you’d like your child to spend on the computer, it’s worth thinking about setting time limits (older kids can be involved in the decisions). These should be decided in advance so everyone knows exactly what to expect. Some parents find it useful to set a kitchen timer to go off when time is up.

Other rules you may like to put in place are that homework and sports or music practice have to be completed before your child can play games.

3. Keep an eye on them

It’s good to keep the computer in the kitchen or living room, rather than tucked away in your child’s bedroom. That way you can keep an eye on what they’re playing, and make sure they’re not accessing anything unsuitable (whether by accident or on purpose).

4. Help choose the games

The younger the child is, the more influence you’ll have in choosing the computer games. There are many good games, and games that are educational, but be especially vigilant of games marked ‘18+’, even if your child is older and seems mature for his or her age. These games are definitely intended for adults. If you don’t put limits on your child early on, it can be much more difficult when he or she becomes a teenager.

Look for the age rating according to PEGI, which also has a content summary. PEGI stands for Pan European Game Information, and the PEGI information usually appears on the front or back of the package.

5. Don’t just act alone

There’s strength in numbers. It will be easier to put boundaries in place for your child if both parents, and perhaps their friends’ parents, are united on the issue of what computer games are suitable, and how long to spend playing.

6. Play with your child

The best way to really understand the games your child is paying is to play with them occasionally, or at least sit with them while they play.

7. Encourage other fun activities

One of the best ways to stop your child spending too much time on the computer is to make sure they’ve got plenty of other things to keep them busy.

Help your child find or rediscover an exciting hobby, or do activities as a family. Find out what good movies are on and suggest a trip to the cinema (either with you, or with a friend, if your child is older). Check out our top 10 suggestions for fun teen activities or our article Fresh air and fun

8. Lock them out

It sounds extreme, but you can download software that allows you to time how long your child’s page/login will operate at one sitting. There are lots of companies offering this online, but check with your internet service provider first to see if this is an add-on they offer as part of your rental package. And make that password foolproof – some kids can be surprisingly clever at hacking their way back into the computer.

Internet safety for kids – useful links

It’s important to talk to your child about staying safe online (tailoring the information to their age and understanding).

Here are some links you might find useful:

Kidsmart is a useful website for parents and those who work with children, all about how to keep online activity, social networking and mobile phone use safe.

Kids and Computers has all kinds of useful advice for online safety, tech tips and ways of helping your child have an all-round enjoyable computer experience.