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Q: I have three sons, ages 8, 5, and 5 (twins) who love to play computer games (Club Penguin, Webkinz, PBS kids.com, and others). I try to limit their screen time to one hour per day, but I know they have been using it for longer than that when they can get away with it. Is there a parent-controlled program I can buy that allows each child to login and have only a limited amount of access per day?
Computer Curious in West Roxbury, MA

A: Dear Computer Curious,

First of all, I applaud you for limiting your kids' screen time and for being aware of what they’re doing even outside what you have allowed. That kind of awareness is an example of great parenting in today's media-filled world.

One thing I want to mention is limiting time is only one thing to be concerned about; content is also important.  Some online games are deeply involved with hooking kids into a product or product line. And there’s evidence that kids under age 7 or 8 can’t tell when someone is selling them something. That’s all the more reason to limit their exposure to these kinds of games.

If you Google "limit computer time", you will find links to a variety of programs (some are free like Norton's Online Family, some you must pay for) that will allow you to do just what you described — set up a system to allow family members a certain amount of computer time.  But one of the problems with relying on technological solutions is that there are always ways to get around such limits (and let's face it, kids seem to always find those ways!).

For that reason, I recommend taking advantage of this situation to teach your kids about limits.  Maybe the limits continue to be a set amount of time, like you have already set up.  Or instead you could think in terms of guidelines — Is all of the important work of the day—family meals, outdoor time, homework—finished before the screen goes on? Is the screen shut off in time for a full night’s sleep?  Educating your children to take care of themselves in a web environment will be more reliable than a computer program, and your kids will also be able to use those lessons in other areas of their lives.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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