Young kids and computers

Young kids and computers -Parents grapple with how much online time is too much for very young children.

There have been plenty of research and philosophizing about preteens' and teenagers' use of computers. But very young children are also logging time with the mouse and keyboard, and parents are grappling with how much is too much.

A 2006 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that examined media use by kids from 6 months to 6 years found that more than a quarter of children ages 4 to 6 use a computer during a typical day, and spend an average of 50 minutes at it.

Some visit sites such as, where they can play games based on "Sesame Street" or "Curious George." has "Dora the Explorer" games. Slightly older kids get into virtual communities like Disney's Club Penguin, Webkinz or Kung Fu Panda World.
Alicia Swanson watches over her 7-year-old son, Elliot Hooper, as he spends time online. (MCT photo / October 28, 2010)

"By and large, parents think computers are useful technology," says Ellen Wartella, a professor and media-use expert at Northwestern University who was an adviser for the Kaiser study. But even helpful technology must be used in moderation, Wartella says, because kids need to play with friends, get outdoors, read books and do homework — not just point and click.

So if computer use can be educational on the one hand, and potentially thwart kids' development on the other, what are parents supposed to do? Tips from the experts:

Keep it out in the open.

Keep the computer used by the kids in a public space, Wartella and other experts advise, so you can see what they're doing online. Research shows that kids with computers or TVs in their rooms spend more time on those activities than other kids, and that heavy media users generally have lower grades in school than light users.

Review Web sites.

Young kids learn about Web sites from friends and TV. Parents need to visit those sites before giving the OK. They should also help children understand that not everything they see or read online is true, and teach them the difference between advertisements and games or stories.

Kid-friendly browers.

Start your child's online exploration via kid-specific browsers like, where children can gain access only to sites, games, pictures and videos that have been approved by an editorial staff, or at home pages like Yahoo! Kids. Services such as Net Nanny ( allow parents to monitor their children's online activity and block unwelcome content. Parents can also set parameters on what kind of content kids can access by manipulating the "parental controls" on browsers such as Internet Explorer and Firefox (via add-on software).

Set guidelines.

Parents who allow kids to play in online communities should use the sites' online tools to regulate what kind of communicating can take place, says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media. The strictest chat settings usually allow kids to choose only from a limited menu of phrases, she says.

Linda Murray, editor-in-chief of parenting site BabyCenter, says parents should talk with the parents of their kids' friends to mutually enforce limits on media use. That's "so you don't get that 'Caitlin is allowed to play Club Penguin every day,'" she explains. ( )

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