Tip #6 Get the Kids a Timer

Jun 08

A timer is helpful for two purposes.  One, it releases the parent from having to constantly check the clock to ensure that she does not let that promised half hour of computer time drift into two hours (my how time flies when the kids are quiet).  Second, it allows the kids to take control of the amount of time they have been allowed to play the digital device – this is particularly important when the device is being shared among impatient kids.

The one recurring theme that comes up in most of the squabbles among my boys is the concept of fairness.  Because I have three boys close in age, they are forever being forced to share the one thing that they all want RIGHT NOW.  The up side to having three kids a few years apart is that they always have one another to play with. The down side is that they often want to use the same damn thing.   This is especially true when it comes to playing the one computer, or the one iPad, or my one iPhone.  Of course, it’s not limited to just digital entertainment.  They’d rather destroy a single lollipop than have to suffer the fate of watching just one kid savour the globe of delight. Fairness is king in our hyper-competitive household.  And, if even one of my kids suspects that another has a smidgen more than the others, look out – there will be blood.

I’ve learned the easiest way to eliminate myself from refereeing their actions is to give them the power to referee themselves.  Yes, it’s that easy!  For my Apple devices, I prefer to use a timer app. There are several of them available, but I use the very basic free app called Timer+.   Parents can quickly set up different times depending on how long they typically allow each child to play. I set up an alarm called “BoysPlay” for 30 minutes.  My boys have no problem starting the timer as their turn begins.  As long as each of them gets the EXACT SAME AMOUNT OF TIME, everyone can breathe easy.  When the timer is up, a sound alarms and the device moves on to the next gamer.  Works like a charm.

For video game consoles or the computer, a good idea is to purchase a small portable timer that the kids can use themselves.  Again, if sharing is involved, the kids will police themselves well.  On the other hand, if all three kids are playing together (aw, how nice!) the onus falls a bit more on the parent.  You’d better double check that timer.  If the time they’re allowed to play is one hour, they’ll very likely muffle the sound of the alarm when it goes off if you’re not around to hear it ’cause the only thing worse than kids divided against one another is kids united against Mom or Dad.

Image: Carlos Porto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Tip #2 Filter What Your Kids Can See

May 20

parental controlsI am a huge advocate for teaching kids self-censorship. In an age where every kind of image not previously known to man has ended up on a screen, all of us (adults and kids) need to accept responsibility for what we choose – or choose not – to view.  My personal weakness is cheesy commercials posted on YouTube.

That being said, no child should be exposed to much of the content posted online. I’ve seen enough stuff to make me scratch my head, how can I expect someone a couple decades my junior to understand and process such images themselves? In fact, the thought of my kids viewing some of the disturbing images out there (Rihanna videos included), gives me the heeby-jeebies. I’ve accepted that I can’t protect them from lousy boy bands and the song “Friday” by Rebecca Black, but there are some things on the internet that I don’t want them to accidentally fall upon.

So, here’s the good news. Every screen, whether hand-held or hanging above the fireplace, offers parental controls. Yes, even your television has them. Spend a few minutes out of every day over the next week playing around with the settings of the devices shared with the kids. Keep in mind: every parental control requires you to create a pass-code.  Write it down and save it. Trust me – you’ll forget.

The computer is the most difficult of the devices to filter. It requires software that, most likely, will need to be downloaded from a website. After many failed efforts at installing family-friendly filters, I’ve found one by Norton that is perfect.  And it’s FREE. Norton Family is easy to install, does not slow down your computer, and is ridiculously simple to use. Check it out here.

Below are some how-to links for setting up controls on various game consoles and hand-held devices. Typically, it’s as simple as clicking into the settings and finding the menu item for safety controls. And, don’t worry about having to curtail your own online habits (should they include some racier content), all the settings are a cinch to remove for adult use.  Just don’t forget the password!


iPod, iPad, iPhone

Nintendo DSi

Playstation 3

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May 18

Today, I received a sad Facebook message from my cousin relaying news about a young family member. I am only sharing this to help all parents recognize that no child is completely immune to the traumatic effects of cyberbullying.

Here’s what the message said (names have been altered):

Dear Tracy:
I remembered you sent a message to Alison and John once about bullying. I just wanted to ask for your prayers. Alison has been cyberbullied and picked on and last night she tried to commit suicide. I am on my way to the hospital in Seattle to see her, they sent us home last night and we can only come during certain hours as she is getting therapy. Could you please ask family to pray for her. We almost didn’t get help in time. We need prayers. Alison is an honor student, a volunteer and an amazing girl. Bullying is bad just like you said. We need prayers, Alison feels so alone and helpless against the bullies that she wanted to not live. Please ask for prayers for her. Thanks you T, Mary

Of course, not every parent’s teenage child will react the same way, nor will every teenage child be bullied to the extreme as this girl was. However, that doesn’t change the reality that all parents should talk to their kids regularly about what’s going “down” on Facebook.

While chatting about the online social scene may not prevent tragedy, at the very least, it opens the door to honest discussions about how digital gossip may or may not be hurting your daughter or son… or whether your child’s actions are hurting others. The last thing we should be thinking is “it’ll never happen to my kid.”  Because it just might.

Consider these facts:

42% of kids have been bullied while online

53% of kids admit having been mean or hurtful to another person online

58% of kids have not told their parents or an adult about a hurtful incident that happened online

Statistics from i-Safe (2003-2004)


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The Kids Can Go Online, As Long as Mom Can Snoop

Oct 05

Kudos to those parents out there who maintain a screen-free household.  I admire them, even if that admiration is tinged with resentment.  I’m sure that they would look down on a mother like me, who eventually succumbed to my kids’ relentless begging to play video games.  But based on the latest research on kids’ habits, there can’t be many families out there who are capable of shutting out the latest gaming technology.  Check out these facts from The NDP Group:

  • Kids are most likely to turn into more serious gamers between the ages of 6 and 8 years old, when their video game playing time increases dramatically.
  • 82% of kids in the U.S. between two and seventeen years old (55.7 million kids) are gamers, that is, they regularly play video games. 
  • Of these gamers, 9.7 million are between the ages of two and five years old, while 12.4 million are between nine and eleven years old.
  • Over half of all kid gamers play games online and are more inclined to be males between nine and fourteen years old.
  • With the advent of handheld devices, the ability to download entertainment from the internet is exploding.  Seventy-five percent of iPhone and iPod Touch users connect to the Web to download entertainment content and apps.  As more children come to own such devices, they will be increasingly exposed to internet content.

Raising kids in an electronic-free environment seems close to impossible when one considers these statistics.  And yes, that helps alleviate my guilt over buying my kids the latest Wii game so they can play for three hours straight in the basement (that’s only on special occasions, by the way), but more than that, it confirms my belief that parents can better serve their children by allowing them to grow comfortable with digital technology than by blocking it completely.  Whether we like it or not, our kids will grow up ever-connected to a screen.  My boys are still young enough to not be too bothered by  their snooping mom looking over their shoulders every time they go online.  They still recognize that I know more than them about the world and my advice is still welcome.  When they hit their teens, I’ll still know more than them, but they sure won’t believe that anymore. 

So, better they learn internet protocol from me (while they’re still young) than years later from some badass 13-year old who wants to show off the “coolest web sites” – as long as no teachers or parents are around.

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Youth Culture Going Digital

Dec 05

“Mom, can I play computer?”¬† It’s a plea iterated in thousands of North American households every day.¬† How parents answer this question is as varied as the children themselves – from strict time limits to a free-for-all.¬† Yet as children morph into teenagers, parental control over the internet wanes, barriers evaporate, and the digital world becomes more streamlined into the everyday lives of young adults.¬† Like it or not, new media is as ubiquitous in today’s youth culture as rock ‚Äòn’ roll was to the Boomer’s.¬†

A recent study on youth and media by the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley (considered America’s most extensive study ever) advises parents to embrace, rather than resent, the increasing role that the internet plays in their children’s lives.¬†

The researchers identify two distinct ways that youths use the internet: friendship-driven and interest-driven.¬† The former is the more popular reason for going online, motivated by teens’ desire to “hang out” with their buddies.¬† Through social networks like My Space and Facebook, text messaging, playing video games with friends, and surfing online together, they do what young people have done for generations before them – talk gossip, music, movies, and anything else deemed too cool for adults.¬† In this context, adults who try to open the door and peer in can expect a “Do Not Enter” sign.¬† And, given the growing use of hand-held digital devices, a diminished influence on teenagers’ use of such technology is certain.¬†¬† ¬†¬†¬†¬†

Behaviour of young people is¬†evolving at a slower rate than technology because of resilient social and cultural structures of youth’s everyday lives.

Naturally, many parents are apprehensive about the negative effects of the internet on their children given their inability to monitor possible exposure to a digital world rife with violence and sex – not to mention, plain bad advice.¬† Add to that the concern that screen time is replacing other valuable pastimes, such as playing sports, enjoying the outdoors, and reading books.¬† These fears, however warranted, are not addressed in the study.¬† The researchers admit, however, that the behaviour of young people is not keeping pace with the rapid technological change.¬† That is, they are evolving at a much slower rate because of “resilient social and cultural structures that youth inhabit in diverse ways in their everyday lives.”

Youths are far less motivated to go online for interest-driven purposes.¬† Not surprisingly, parents are more comfortable with kids using the internet for academic or personal research than for posting videos from their latest party on YouTube.¬† Furthermore, kids tend to lift the “no adults” rule when they are online for this purpose – although they are still more motivated to learn from peers than older folks.¬† That may be because youths are more likely to seek expertise on new media technologies, such as video editing and online gaming, than more traditional subjects.¬† In other words, if young Sally wants to be a brain surgeon, she’ll be spending more time buried in books than staring at a screen.¬†

The study lauds the internet for encouraging “self-directed learning” among young people today – unlike a traditional classroom setting where goals are set by teachers.¬† As digital technology evolves, researchers suggest educators and parents can have a growing influence in how youths navigate the digital world by exploring ways to incorporate their own knowledge and expertise into this burgeoning technology.¬†

Authors of the California study warn parents that “technical barriers, or time limits on use are blunt instruments” that are perceived by youth as “raw and ill-informed exercises of power.”¬† That teenagers want more power to do as they wish is nothing new, and the researchers clearly show their lack of knowledge about raising a family within which structure and rules are paramount to ensuring children grow up healthy, safe, and well-equipped for adulthood.¬† Yet, the study makes a strong argument for parents to accept that online time provides their children with skills essential for thriving in our digital society.

As the role of technology gains importance in our lives, instilling age-old qualities, such as critical thinking, conscientiousness, and desire to learn are still as necessary as ever – if not more so.¬† And thankfully, they are taught the good old fashioned way – through human interaction.¬† Chances are, if you’re teaching these values to your kids, the computer will be an essential and useful vehicle in their life journey… but not the compass.

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