Q: For the past several months, my 16 year-old son has been spending several hours a day on Wikipedia, reading and editing entries. (Also he has been treated for depression for the last four months and is doing better now.) In general, he doesn’t manage his time well—he sleeps in at the wrong times and is always late. But we find it difficult to control his Internet time because he needs to use the computer for homework so we never know what he is really doing. I’ve searched for scientific papers specifically on Wikipedia habits, but all I find are articles on internet addiction. Should I be concerned? What can I do?
-Worried about Wikipedia in Boston, MA
A: First of all, your web searches may have been pointing you to the right articles: Even if it seems like an inappropriate term to categorize your son’s behavior, internet addiction refers to unhealthy patterns of internet use, regardless of which websites your child is surfing. Wikipedia may be the website he’s hooked on right now, but it’s the access and availability of content on the internet that fuels addictions, not necessarily the content itself.
Is it reasonable to be concerned? Absolutely. I'm not sure if your son has a lot of good friends, but research shows that teens who don't think they have strong friendships are more likely to be depressed if they are using the internet for purposes other than communication (email, IM'ing, social networking). So from a health perspective, it’s worth changing your son’s patterns. You can help your son to become a better user of this tool (a computer with Internet access) and one who manages his time effectively by starting with these tips:
- Move the computer to a public space away from his bedroom. It’s unlikely he would stay up nights in the dining or living room clicking around. Restricting his access to these locations also gives you more of a shared role in his computer use, allowing you to be available if he has school project questions or just needs help staying on task.
- Teach your son to triage his nightly homework. Divide assignments into three categories: Ones that don’t require a computer (such as reading textbooks or completing worksheets), ones that require using the computer without being online (typing an essay, for example), and ones he needs to be online for (researching, posting to a class blog, etc.). As much as possible, have him move through assignments in that order. When writing a paper, he may need to do online research, then write; have him close the browser after he’s finished with the research portion.
Also, consider having him estimate how long each homework task will take: 15 minutes to finish a math worksheet, 30 minutes to write book report, etc. See how close he realistically comes to each goal. Then, encourage him to make those deadlines on similar future assignments—this is a skill that will serve him well way beyond high school.
- Discuss Wikipedia’s strengths and weaknesses. As an encyclopedia written and edited solely by volunteers who have expertise on an array of subjects—one that has been praised for its demonstrated accuracy, in fact—Wikipedia is a great place for your son to begin his general research on a topic in order to become familiar with its terminology, major dates, key issues, and other nuances. To move his research from the crowd-sourced arena (where entries are only as accurate as the people who contribute to them) into a more scholarly realm, he should then use either the article’s footnotes or databases from his school or public library to find peer-reviewed articles that can further his study. You may also consider sharing with him this resource on evaluting the quality of sources.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,