How can I limit my teen’s Internet time without distracting him from homework or invading his privacy?

We recently ran a post on whether or not it’s OK for parents to monitor their teenagers’ Facebook page if they suspect the child is engaging in risky behaviors like drinking or drug use. In this blog by Children’s media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, a parent asks for advice on how to balance her desire to respect her son’s online privacy while still setting limits on much time he spends on the computer.

Q: My 16-year-old son uses the computer constantly at home in his room and almost always claims he is doing homework. He doesn’t want me to look over his shoulder and see what he is doing when I come into his room, and frankly, I want to allow him his privacy when he is on the computer, as well as in other areas of his life. I believe that he spends too much time on the computer, to the detriment of other activities such as time with family, reading, extracurricular activities, etc., but he disagrees and doesn’t want to be controlled by his parents. Any suggestions?

-Computer confused mom, NY, NY

A: Dear Computer confused,

I applaud your instincts to give your son the freedom to practice using the computer responsibly, as well as your concern that he may not be doing so. Giving him privacy can help him establish who he is, independent of you. But this privacy is not the given that many adolescents assume it is: It is, rather, a privilege of his impending adulthood that he must earn.

Physically, he is approaching adulthood fast, but his brain won’t catch up until his mid to late 20s—particularly the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part responsible for future thinking and understanding consequences. Developmentally, he is no more in a position to effectively control how much time he spends on the computer, or to understand the physical, psychological, and academic consequences of failing to do so, than he was to walk at 6 months old. That may be part of why you’re uneasy about how much time he spends on the computer. Indeed, recent research shows that the average American 8- to 18-year-old does do homework on the computer—for an average of 16 minutes a day. That’s out of 1 hour 29 minutes total computer time, which includes 22 minutes of social networking and 17 minutes of playing games.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Parenting him online as you do offline can give you a way to teach him to balance these different activities. As you would do when he is learning to drive, start with more supervision, and then allow him increasing freedom as he demonstrates the maturity to handle it. The first step is to move his (and possibly everyone’s) computer use into public family space. Explain that you are making this shift because you know that he wants to be a fully engaged member of the household. Part of that is bringing media use out of the bedroom, which lets him demonstrate for you that he knows how to manage it himself (which means coming to dinner when dinner is ready, finishing his homework, etc.).

In addition, bringing the computer into public space allows you to use that media with him. Ask him to teach you about something he does online, like Facebook or a game he loves. Your willingness to learn from him shows that you respect what he knows and who he is becoming—and can help lay the groundwork for future conversations about managing his media use.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston