By Raising Children Network
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did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • There is little evidence to support claims that using a computer will prepare your child for future academic success. But family time spent interacting with digital media can help children develop the skills they need to understand media messages.
  • Spending time with you and interacting with real people are much better for children’s wellbeing and development.
  • Most Australian households (98%) have a computer, and the average family household has two computers.
Today’s school children spend a lot of time with computers. But even the most educational games play only a small role in developing their life skills. Here’s how to take a balanced approach to computer time for your child.

Computer time for school-age children

Most child development experts recommend limiting children’s daily screen time: no more than an hour a day for children aged 2-5 years, and no more than two hours a day for children over five. Screen time includes TV, DVD and computer time.

This is for the following reasons:

  • Young children thrive on being with other people. This develops their relationship and language skills. Social development is also a very important part of learning for school-age children.
  • The time children spend watching TV and playing computer games should be balanced with other activities that are good for their development. These include physically active play, creative play (such as solving puzzles and drawing), and conversation with family and friends.
  • Longer times in front of the screen increase the risk of childhood obesity.

A good balance of developmental activities with homework, sport and music should leave little time for computers.

Computer use and digital literacy are often seen as valuable for children. But try not to feel too pressured to buy the latest computer products. After all, technology is constantly changing, and children can often adapt to new technology anyway.

Making the most of computer time for school-age children

Choosing age-appropriate computer activities and games is the first step. School-age children are likely to be interested in computer and video games, including those they can access via the internet. They might also want to use word processing, drawing or presentation software, or create content on social media sites.

School-age children will generally love it if you play computer games with them or watch them play. Responding to them and what they’re doing also helps build your relationship with your child. As you play, assist your child with the choices offered by the game or program, and help your child explore things of interest.

Asking questions about your child’s computer activities and games helps get your child in the habit of thinking about what’s on the screen, rather than just passively taking it in. Questions could include, ‘How do you play this game?’, ‘What happens when you move there?’ and ‘Which character is talking?’

School-age children will probably want to use the internet as an information source and to access games and entertainment sites. But you can’t trust everything you find on the internet, and kids need to learn this. You can encourage your child to be critical about internet content and contact by suggesting questions like these:

  • Who is behind this website? Is it a person, an organisation such as a university, a company, a government agency?
  • Why is this information here? Is the website trying to sell me something? Make me believe something? Get me to do something?
  • Can I trust the ‘facts’ on this website? Where do they come from?
  • Who cares? Why does the information on this website matter?
  • Who might be reading the information I share on social media sites like Facebook?
  • Are all the ‘friends’ online really just ordinary people, or might they work for companies that want to sell me things?

Although it’s not always easy for kids (or grown-ups) to answer these questions, asking them can help children avoid frustration and wasted time online.

URLs can help you and your child work out where internet information comes from. For example:

  • ‘.edu’ usually means a university
  • ‘.com’ usually means a commercial organisation
  • ‘.org’ usually means a not-for-profit organisation.
If children are using information from the internet in homework assignments, make sure they write it down using their own words. It’s also a good time for older children to get into the habit of including the sources in their assignments – that is, the exact URLs where they found the information.

Games that have ‘explore’ settings allow your child to play with others rather than competing against them. Encourage your child to play with siblings and friends. Many interactive sites for children, such as the ABC for Kids and ABC3 websites, have resources for content creation, such as musical mashups and other activities that children can do and share online.

Talking with your child about how much screen time is allowed and what computer activities are OK teaches children to think, plan, and make choices about their computer use. Give your children a list of games and activities and let them choose how they want to spend their computer time.

Many parents find it useful to have and stick to clear family guidelines about how much screen time is allowed, and what can be watched or played. Even if you haven’t had rules before, it’s not too late. Be prepared for some initial protests, but don’t worry – your child will get used to it.

Safe and healthy computer use

These tips will help you make sure your child stays safe and healthy while using the computer:

  • Keep the computer in a shared space, especially if you have internet access. Keep an eye on what your child is doing and viewing. Children can easily access disturbing material or content including games with racist, sexist or violent components or messages. You could consider installing filters or parental control software on your computer.
  • Teach your child four simple rules for internet use and safety: no sharing personal details, no meeting strangers, no sharing passwords, and stick to the time limit.
  • Use the Australian Government film and computer classifications to decide what your child should be allowed to play. G-rated games and some PG-rated games are suitable for school-age children (although many PG-rated games do contain violence). Games and activities with an M rating are not appropriate.
  • Some research is showing that video game and cartoon violence can be harmful and that playing very fast-paced video games has an effect, at least on children’s behaviour in the short term. Try to avoid computer games that make violence look ‘cool’, or that show violence as a way to get what you want. If children see heroes being rewarded for violent acts, they might want to copy this pattern. Also, it can make them less sensitive to violence in the real world.
  • Make sure your child has access to a range of stimulating and entertaining activities – books, visits to the library, physical exercise and so on. This way, your child won’t be able to say there’s nothing to do except play computer games!
Make sure your child takes regular breaks from the computer – at least every 20 minutes. Watch your child’s overall screen time too. Some studies have linked too much computer use to increased risk of obesity, seizures and physical problems like hand injuries, eye strain, and back and wrist problems.
  • Last updated or reviewed 26-10-2010
  • Acknowledgements Article developed in collaboration with Australian Council on Children and the Media (incorporating Young Media Australia).