Sometimes the best advice you get is from an expert whose specialty complements your own. I recently had that opportunity while talking with my friend and technology guru, Eric Therrien. Eric knows more about computers, programming, cybersecurity, and figuring things out than anyone I know. He has been helping me solve every technology dilemma that I have encountered in my clinical practice over the past 20 years. Recently we were chatting one night about our kids and how much they enjoy their technological pursuits and how we went about setting screen time limits.
Eric has two sons, Ian, age 15, and Max, age 14. Both are excellent students who have often earned high honors for their academic performance. They are great kids who are driven to succeed and work very hard at school as well as in their online pursuits. But sometimes they love being online a bit too much. Eric described that his older son Ian has matured recently and begun to expand his interests beyond the screen. Max, however, who continues to do extremely well in school, sometimes appears to be overly focused on wanting to spend time on the Internet. Eric asked me for advice about setting limits but, as it turned out, he had more advice for me than I had for him.
Eric said that his kids generally complete their chores as required, help out around the house, and this winter (of heavy snow in RI) shoveled their elderly neighbor’s driveway without any prompting from him or other adults. In spite of this, however, the lure of the screen can still sometimes be problematic. Some days the kids get home a couple of hours before he does, and instead of completing their chores they become immersed in online activities. They were also spending too much time online late at night and not getting enough sleep for school. As a result, Eric became concerned and attempted to set some limits on their Internet access. Unfortunately, much like their father, his kids are computer experts and were able to find some workarounds, including figuring out some of his passwords. But Eric is still just a little bit smarter than his kids (at least he hopes that he is) and came up with some strategies to handle these concerns.
Here are a few of Eric’s tips for helping parents set effective screen time limits for the kids:
1. Keep your passwords very private. Don’t write them down and don’t use ones your kids know or could figure out such as their names, your favorite activities, or any you used in the past. Also, don’t let them watch you when you’re typing them in, as many kids have developed excellent spy techniques for observing your keystrokes. Eric suggests encrypting your passwords so that kids cannot access them.
2. Get a programmable router that links to your smart phone. This allows you to turn off Internet access remotely. Eric uses this tool, which is available with a Linksys router, to make sure the chores are done at home. He tells his kids that they need to send him a picture of the dishes being done or other chores completed before he will turn on the router. Of course, and I hope that Ian and Max are not reading this, they could always use an old picture and send it to the father, although he’d probably figure out that it wasn’t current.
3. Get a tool such as Net Nanny for kids who might be using the Internet inappropriately. Programs such as Net Nanny email what websites kids are going to and actually copy keystrokes. It’s a bit like spying on your kids, but if they are getting into trouble on the Internet it may be well worth it.
4. Be in control of your children’s cell phone service. Most of the major carriers allow parents to have on and off times for the operation of cell phones. This is particularly helpful for turning off Internet access and smartphones.