How long should you let your child go online?

With school holidays looming, Conor Power wonders how long he should allow his son to be online during the summer. It’s a constant battle, experts admit, and you can’t compare it with TV ‘in our day’

AS parents of a 14-year-old boy, we are happy for him to use ever-present media such as the Playstation, iTouch, smartphone and the computer. These give him essential skills: they stimulate his creativity; and are a social platform on which he can communicate, like most of his age group. He still reads books (paper ones), and plays music and sports.

His is the first generation that has grown up with constant screens, but all the hours spent sitting in front of them don’t seem healthy: not for posture and not for social skills.

We worry that it causes poor concentration. Dinner and family times are punctuated by the sounds of devices receiving messages and by the clickety-clack of high-speed thumb-typing.

Our concern that study and test results were suffering as a result of too much time on the Playstation drove us to curtail screen-time for him.

We had tried limiting the hours on Playstation during the week, but there’s always the request for ‘one more game’ and, through accident or design, the 9pm cut-off became 9:35pm before anyone realised. The other pre-condition (all homework completed before Playstation use) is either not complied with, or the homework is rushed so that Playstation hour arrives sooner.

So, the solution was to only allow online gaming at the weekend.

At first, Colm felt that it was unfair; that we were denying him social interaction with friends and that our argument about it affecting homework was wrong.

Whether or not it was because of the weekday ban, Colm’s school work improved after that.

“I don’t think that it (online gaming and Facebooking) has any effect on my concentration levels at home or at school,” says Colm. He does, however, say that he may have been spending too much time online: “It becomes kind of addictive and takes up a lot of time.”

Colm doesn’t consider it rude in the presence of other people to be constantly texting friends. To him, and most of his generation, it’s more normal than chatting face-to-face.

“It’s a lot easier for people to talk to each other and communicate using texting or Facebook, because you don’t have that pressure that you might have talking face-to-face,” Colm says.

So, provided that all this on-screen activity is conducted safely, isn’t it all similar to how our parents thought we were watching too much television when we were small?

Isn’t it all just a storm in a laptop?

“Certainly not,” says senior clinical psychologist and member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, Mark Smyth, “and I say this as a gamer myself. It’s something I talk on quite a lot, in addressing problems facing 12- to 18-year-olds.

“With any kind of issue like that, if it’s not curtailed, it can have very significant difficulties for the kids, depending on how un-curtailed it is.”

Smyth regularly meets children who are completely withdrawing, to the point of refusing to go to school. That’s the extreme end of the scale.

“We get a lot of incidents of children not being able to concentrate in school, because they’re exhausted from being up late at night. So, even if the parents have cut off the gaming, they might still be on Facebook, or texting under the covers until late into the night,” Mr Smyth says.

There is also an addictive, ever-present characteristic of the new media that wasn’t there before, says Damien Mulley, of online consultants Mulley Communications.

“A big thing I’m seeing now, is over-stimulation of the brain,” says Mulley.

“We’re meant to turn down the lights and not over-think before bed-time... Now, it’s on the laptop or iPad, up to bed and on the smartphone, reading twitter or on the iPad. Our brain is still being stimulated by a high-resolution screen, and so it takes longer for the brain to switch off. I think this is a big thing. It happens to me far too often.”

What about the social benefits? “It does often increase the number of friends they’re in contact with,” says Smyth, “but it’s the nuances of social interaction that they’re missing. Because it’s virtual, they’re missing out on eye contact and gestures, as well as problem-solving. When they’re communicating online, they get the time to stop, think, and respond and they don’t seem to be able to manage situations as they arise, or interpersonal conflict with the person.”


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