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? Unfortunately, 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 understand how their children are using 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.

Setting boundaries

Once you understand how your children are spending their time online, you can decide what kind of action you’d like to take to make sure they have a good balance of time online and offline.

There are two ways to manage setting boundaries:

  1. Good old fashioned parenting
  2. Technological solutions

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 toddler 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.
  • 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. As a parent or caregiver you may be faced with anger and tantrums over this.

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.

‘Internet addiction’, compulsion or overuse – although not formally recognised as a disorder – is often said to be a growing problem for younger generations that have embraced a constantly connected lifestyle. Internet overuse or a compulsion to stay connected may mean they neglect friends, withdraw from sport or other activities.

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.

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