The internet has changed the way we work, rest and play. With so many ways to connect to friends, family and all kinds of content, many parents worry about how much time their children spend online.

So, how many hours a day should kids be spending online? There’s no simple answer to this question because not all screen time is created equal. Spending two hours on the internet watching cartoons isn’t as beneficial as spending two hours on the internet learning.

Parents need to think about the age and stage of their children, and understand how their children use the internet to be able to decide how much time they’d like their kids to be spending online.

Getting started

Talk to your kids about what they’re using the internet for, so you have a better understanding of how they’re spending their time online. Are they using the internet to learn? To communicate and create friendships with others? To create music or videos? Really listen to what they have to say – what might seem like ‘just a game’ to you, could in fact be a way for them to connect with people who have similar interests.

Helping them to self-manage their time

As children get older we need to start teaching them how to manage their own screen time, so they have these skills in adulthood. You can start this by talking to them about their time online and how to manage it. Some questions you could ask to start the conversation with teens are:

  • How much time do you think you spend online in a day?
  • How can you tell when you’ve been online too long? (E.g. phone starts getting hot, eyes get sore or tired, start to feel unproductive or mood starts to change)
  • How do you feel when you spend too much time online?
  • The online space is great, but what are some of the positive benefits of putting down your phone and doing other activities?
  • What are some different ways you could manage your time online or cut down when you need to? (See our managing time online advice for tips)

Often we don’t actually know how much time we’re spending online. Some social media platforms have tools to help you keep track of how much time you’re spending online and allow you to set up an alarm to notify you once you’ve spent a certain amount of time online. For Instagram, go to “Settings” and then select “Your activity”. On Facebook, this is under “Settings & Privacy” and then select “Your time on Facebook”. There are also phone settings and other apps that help you manage your time online too.

Setting boundaries

There are two ways to manage setting boundaries:

  1. Good old fashioned parenting
  2. Technological solutions

How you use these techniques will depend on the age and stage of your children. Younger children will generally need more boundaries for spending time online, where as older teens will need more education to help them manage their own time.

Parenting techniques

Parenting has always involved setting boundaries and explaining the responsibilities and expectations a family has for their children. This applies as much to internet use as establishing a bedtime routine, performing household chores or learning to drive.

Establishing some ground rules early on can work wonders, for example when a young child first learns to use a tablet for games or drawing and later on when they get their own first device to call friends or go online.

  • Setting boundaries as soon as a child gets their first device means it becomes normal for internet time to be limited in your household and less difficult to enforce later on.
  • If your child has already been using devices for some time, an open and frank discussion around any changes is a good idea to help them understand new time limits.
  • Parents can also model good behaviour, perhaps agreeing to no devices at the dinner table or after a certain time at night so emails and texts don’t disrupt family time.
  • Moderation is key – try to make sure your children have plenty of other activities to balance the time they spend online.

Technological solutions

For younger children, internet content filtering tools and safe search settings can be a good way to prevent them stumbling across unsuitable adult content and restrict the amount of time they can spend on devices.

It gets harder to implement filters and restrictions as children grow up and have access to their own technology and data plans but families can explore a range of options that include:

  • Setting parental controls on a specific device
  • Restrictions at the router or modem level to limit the time online through device ‘scheduling’ settings or a service like OpenDNS
  • Routinely changing the Wi-Fi password and only giving access once chores or homework are completed

Most modern operating systems for computers, tablets and smartphones have parental controls so it’s a good idea to become the ‘administrator’, set up parental controls perhaps via a separate account.

Is your child spending too much time online?

If the time your child is spending on the internet is having a negative effect on other areas of their development, it’s important to look at their internet use.

Questions to think about

  • Is excessive internet use affecting their sleep?
  • Is excessive internet use affecting the quality of their schoolwork?
  • Has their behaviour changed?
  • Do they become angry or even aggressive if you try to limit their time online?
  • Are they spending so much time online that other hobbies are becoming less important?

If your children take their phone to bed with them to ensure they can keep communicating with friends late into the night, this can lead to disrupted sleep and leave your children tired, grumpy, keen to skip school or have an impact on their learning.

A change in behaviour may also be clues to other issues such as cyberbullying or grooming, so it pays to ensure your children feel they can share problems with you. Assure them that can talk to you about any problems they come across online, and that you won’t take their device away if they ask you for help. This is often a barrier for young people seeking help from parents.

More advice and information

  • Excessive gaming or internet use may mean asking for help from counsellors
  • Parents should seek specialist intervention if the overuse involves pornography or objectionable material
  • More advice for parents
  • Contact Netsafe if you’d like further help on 0508 NETSAFE or help@netsafe.org.nz