Children are in a particularly vulnerable position with respect to the negative effects of excessive internet use simply by virtue of the phase of life they are in. The years leading to adulthood represent a critical developmental phase of life during which healthy social, intellectual, and emotional skills need to be learned in order to be able navigate the many challenges we will face in life.
If too much of ‘real life’ activity is sacrificed to the virtual world, we risk the possibility that our children will reach adulthood with an inability to manage relationships (personal and professional) effectively or to deal with life’s stresses in a healthy way.
It should be remembered, though, that the emphasis is on “too much”, and being able to roughly (at least) manage the distinction between it and “acceptable” over the long term. There are certainly many activities in the online world that can actually enhance our children’s social, emotional and academic skills and even help improve their self-confidence.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
Curbing or circumventing excessive internet use involves strategies that are common to the management of many other behavioural issues. However, which ones you choose and the fine details you settle on should be informed by the nature of your child’s habit. Bearing this in mind, you may find the following strategies helpful:
Address the underlying attraction of the internet for your child. For example, if one of the strongest motivators for your child’s internet use is the feeling of connectedness he finds there, then assisting him to find an alternate ‘real life’ group to connect to will go a long way toward weaning him off the computer.If you suspect that your child’s primary motivation is escaping life’s stresses, then assisting him to manage those stresses in healthier and more productive ways may be what is required. Spending time discussing your child’s concerns and strategizing solutions together can make a dramatic difference in this area.
Replace rather than stop – it is far more effective to replace rather than simply stop a negative behaviour. It may be more time-consuming initially to plan or help your child find activities to substitute for on-screen time, but it will be much more successful in the long term. One idea you may wish to include is to post a list of suggestions entitled, for example, “Things I Can Do That Don’t Involve a Screen!”
Enforced time limitations – set up time limits for all screen time (daily as well as weekly limits); in term time, you may even consider banning computer use on school nights and allow it only on weekends (or, of course, to complete a homework assignment). You may be surprised at the closer attention paid to homework and instrument practice. You may also want to consider including TV as well, as this can be just as much a part of the addiction as other screen-based activity.
Goal-focused use only – allow computer use only for achieving a specific outcome (even if that outcome is fun) not just to while away their time. Set a specific time limit for that use.
Responsibilities come first – implement the rule that household and personal obligations (such as homework) must be fulfilled first.
Switch-off policy – switch off all electronics 1.5 – 2 hours before bedtime; electronics (including TV) have been shown to have a stimulative effect on the brain for up to 2 hours following switch-off, which affects sleep quality and the ability to settle down to sleep.