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The Informed Parent

Screen Time

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Feb. 16, 2004

Mrs. Jones came in with her 13-year-old son for an annual physical. Jake was clearly not happy to be here.

“Jake,” I said as I entered the room. “How are things going?” He mumbled something in reply. “I didn’t hear you,” I responded.

“Fine,” he murmured.

“Good. Now let’s see how much you’ve grown in the past year. Two and a half inches! Excellent, Jake.” His face became animated at my declaration.

From this point on he was more communicative--clearly pleased with his growth. As the examination came to an end mom cleared her throat and said, “Doctor, Jake doesn’t want me to ask you this, but I want your opinion.”

“Oh, Mom! I told you to forget it.”

“What’s the question, Mrs. Jones?” Jake sighed and frowned, obviously unhappy with the conversation.

“How much time should a 13-year-old boy spend at the computer?”

“MOM!” he groaned as he scowled at her.

“As long as it takes to get his homework done,” I replied.

“No, it’s not the homework time. It’s the game playing, chat time and---you know,” Mrs. Jones pleaded. Mom and Jake began arguing about the use of the computer.

“Please. Arguing will settle nothing,” I directed. “Let’s look at the facts about computer use.” I have encountered this discussion three-to-four times each week. Let me point out a few things about this encounter.

First, as a parent do not get dragged into an argument. Decide what you want after listening to your child’s thoughts. Then make a fair and clear decision. State it without further, senseless banter that only leads to your loss of temper and angry words that hurt instead of direct.

Second, the main point is TIME in front of the screen. As an entertainment tool the computer monitor and the television screen are equivalent. The time you deem reasonable as a family must encompass television watching and computer/internet use for enjoyment. If one hour of television is your rule, then that is the one hour of screen entertainment. No one can decide your family rules. But one hour on a school night is appropriate. It would be unwise to exceed more than two hours.

Computer use can be educational. Doing homework on it is perfectly acceptable. Playing games or internet chatting is strictly entertainment, and should be equated to television time.

Often I hear, “What can I do? He says he is doing homework, but I see him playing games.” What can you do? Well, lets remember who’s the parent, who sets the rules and who enforces them. Yes, THE PARENT!

As a parent you have to love your children enough to do the unpleasant task of guiding them toward appropriate behavior. This applies even when they don’t like your rules.

The relation of child-to-parent is not a democratic one, where rules are voted on by the family members. The role of the parent is best described as a benevolent dictator, giving direction to the important things that involve work ethics, moral and spiritual matters and issues of safety. One can apply democracy to issues such as which movie to see, or where to eat out.

Jake and Mrs. Jones stood to leave. I knew more arguing would continue. Jake would undoubtedly win. Thus, mom would have to exclaim to anyone who would listen, “What am I to do? He always gets his way!” Evidently she did not hear my advice.

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