THE BLOG

How Much Is Too Much Online Time?

11/13/2013 11:19 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
by Dina Marie via Getty Images

My 11-year-old rushes through his homework so he can get to his computer games. And my 14-year-old would play video games for six hours straight on the weekends if I let him. Both of them get pretty good grades and they do have other activities (guitar for one and water polo for the other), but if I didn't set limits, they would play in every spare minute.

Today's parents are navigating uncharted territory when it comes to figuring out appropriate guidelines for kids and digital media. Even those of us with children in their 20s cannot know the challenges that parents of younger children and teens are facing when it comes to making wise decisions about how much digital device access to give their kids. Three-year-olds are routinely having meltdowns because they want to play with Mommy's iPad. College students are skipping classes (and even meals and showers) because their online games are so compelling. Here are my thoughts:

Get clear. As long as you're wishy-washy about how much your kids can be online, you will be vulnerable to battles and negotiations. Make a decision about what feels right to you -- perhaps 30 minutes a day before 8:00 p.m., or two hours on Saturday after chores -- and try that out for a few weeks. You can always go back to the drawing table if your initial plan isn't working.

Provide alternatives. Many kids play video games for hours on end because they have forgotten how to entertain themselves any other way. If you point your sons in the direction of of other activities (and occasionally join them in some unplugged fun), they will more willingly disengage from their devices. If one of your boys enjoys cooking, encourage him to help you make dessert for the family. If one enjoys singing, invest in a karaoke machine and be his backup vocalist.

Tolerate boredom. Necessity is the mother of invention. If you unplug your boys from their devices, they will eventually find other things to do, but it may take some time for them to adjust to a digital-free stretch of time. While you can certainly offer suggestions for activities that require no batteries or electricity (see prior tip), be prepared for complaints and arguments about how there's "nothing to do" when you start limiting their time online.

Limit long stretches of weekend play. When kids are on electronic devices for long periods of time, they become increasingly angry about turning them off. Make sure your boys take at least a short break minutes after 45 minutes or an hour of online game time. My personal recommendation is no more than two hours on Saturdays and Sundays, which ensures they will be engaging in the 3D world for a good portion of their weekend.

Treat video game time as a privilege rather then a right. Let your sons know that as long as they keep their grades up, they can have 30 minutes a day of game time and that they can earn up to another 30 minutes. (e.g. doing household chores for 20 minutes might earn them 20 minutes online) if they want more. If grades or behavior suffer, consider limiting video games to the weekend.

Lose the popularity contest. Video and computer games are fun. They are an easy way for teen boys to have fun alone or together, offer a way to master challenges and bathe the brain with all kinds of feel-good chemicals. Give up on the idea that your kids will embrace your limits, or that they'll thank you for forcing them to read, draw, build or play basketball. As long as you can endure the adjustment period, you should be able to institute guidelines.

I have yet to work with a parent who is not struggling with this issue. It isn't easy to say no to something our kids enjoy so much and which takes the pressure off of us in terms of providing them with something to do. But unlimited access to video and computer games is not in a child's best interest, nor does it set them up to learn how to manage their time once they are no longer living under your roof. Be fearless about setting limits, be kind and stay the course.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to askparentcoach@gmail.com and you could be featured in an upcoming column.