School-age children spend a lot of time with computers. But even the most educational websites and computer games play only a small role in developing children’s life skills. Here’s how to take a balanced approach to computer use and computer time for your child.
Computer time for school-age children
Most child development experts recommend limiting children’s daily screen time. Young children should spend no more than an hour a day using tablets, mobile phones, electronic games and computers.
This is because interacting with you and others is much better for children’s wellbeing and development. Real-life interactions develop children’s relationship and language skills. Social development is also a very important part of learning for school-age children.
Also, longer times in front of the screen increase the risk of childhood obesity.
The time children spend watching screens 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.
Computer use and the developing brain
Computer use is changing the physical shapes of our brains. This might be a particular worry for children’s brains, which are still developing.
For example, constant stimulation from digital devices might create attention problems for children, who already find it challenging to set priorities and resist impulses.
Computer use and digital literacy are often seen as valuable for children. But try not to feel too pressured to buy the latest hand-held devices, tablets, video game consoles and so on. After all, technology is constantly changing, and children are good at adapting to new technology anyway.
Making the most of computer time for school-age children
School-age children are likely to be interested in computer and video games, including online games. Choosing age-appropriate computer activities, apps and games is the first step in making computer time worthwhile.
Your child might also want to use word processing, drawing or presentation software, or create content on social media sites. Children often enjoy child-friendly websites and apps that let them create video clips or photographs, animations, books and comics.
Computer games and digital media
School-age children will generally love it if you play computer games or use digital media with them – or at least watch.
Responding to them and what they’re doing also helps build your relationship with your child. As you play or help your child with media and digital creation, talk with your child about the choices in the game or program. You can help him explore things of interest and ask him what he’s going to do next.
It’s also a good idea to look for games that have ‘explore’ settings. These allow your child to play online with others, including you, rather than competing against them. Encourage your child to play with other people, rather than by herself.
Look for sites with resources for digital content creation, such as musical mashups and other activities that children can do and share online – for example, ABC for Kids and ABC3.
Asking questions about your child’s computer and tablet 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?
- Which character is talking?
- What ideas do you have about your cartoon or comic?
The more time you spend with your child interacting with digital media, the more it will help your child develop skills for understanding media messages.
School-age children will probably want to use the internet as an information source. They’ll probably want to access games and entertainment sites too. 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 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 Club Penguin?
- Are all the ‘friends’ online really just ordinary people, or might they work for companies that want to sell me things?
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.
Although it’s not always easy for kids (or grown-ups) to be critical about online content, asking questions can help you and your child avoid frustration and wasted time online.
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.
Talking with your child about how much screen time is allowed and what websites and computer activities are OK teaches him to think, plan and make choices about his computer use.
A top tip is to 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 never 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 promote internet safety for your child and family:
- Keep the computer in a shared space, especially if you have internet access. Keep an eye on what your child is doing and viewing.
- Encourage your child to tell you if she accesses a website or game that upsets or frightens her.
- 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.
- 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 and other screens – 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.