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i-Kids and i-Time

I don't know any parent who isn't struggling with electronic devices.

They are everywhere. Take our household of two adults and four children for example. The inventory includes: iMac; Macbook Pro; Macbook Air; X-Box; Wii; 4 iPads; 3 iPods; and 2 iPhones. The 13-year olds needed iPads for school this year, which is great for their education I am sure, but also challenging because now they have these devices in their hands 24-7.

These interactive devices are so attractive and so absorbing; it seems the kids would be on them around the clock if they could. Battery charge would seem the only limiter; but no, you simply move to a power outlet, plug in and carry on.

As a lot of other parents do, we worry about the impact of the time the kids spend on these devices on their health and development. So we try to get them off the devices. We reason. We plead. We nag. We blow up: "Get off that thing—your've been on it for hours!"

The problem is, there is very little to guide parents. We didn't experience our own parents dealing with this; it wasn't something our parents had to handle.

Also, there is very little science to guide us on how best to manage our children's use of electronic devices. Research in this area is growing, but it's early days.

So all-in-all we know very little about how these devices impact on children's development and wellbeing, and it's unlikely we will, for some time yet. I'm also not aware of any research that has tested any specific parenting approaches to handling electronic devices at home. It seems like we are involved in a huge social experiment with a completely unknown outcome.

But I'm also conscious that most new technologies through history have given rise to caution and suspicion. Remember the moral crisis of television? I hear members of my generation harking back to the good old days, where apparently we spent all our time as children playing outside, rolling in the mud, climbing trees, doing chores for our parents, and freely wandering the neighbourhood. This is apparently what children should be doing. Aside from the selective memory, and the rose coloured glasses, I laugh because the way our generation turned out is really nothing to write home about.

And there are real positives to computers and interactive devices. Instant access to the sum total of human knowledge—what a time to do school projects. I also enjoy watching the kids use these tools to communicate with their friends. With all the online capacity my boys have at their disposal, they rarely play video games alone these days. And I for one will be forever grateful that we don't have to endure the agony my parents did on long road trips!

So I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill. I don't want to be carried away by worries that could be baseless. Ultimately, I want the kids to be able to manage these tools independently, and I don't want to inadvertently make them even more attractive by being overly restrictive. I'm also conscious that family conflict—nagging, fighting and arguing—about the use of the devices could cause more harm than the devices themselves.

Still, it's a parent's role to help children find some balance in their activities and in the way they spend their time. Given the uniquely engaging nature of these devices, children left alone seem to have trouble moderating their use. So we, like many parents, have tried setting some limits.

We have tried different approaches. First, we tried restricting the amount of screen time to one-to-two hours a day. But this didn't work for us. We had to monitor it closely, or time would get away from us all, and there was almost always an unpleasant moment involved in enforcing the end of the allocated time. We also tried limiting computer play to certain hours in the day. But we noticed the kids lolling around, doing nothing while waiting for the clock to tick over, rather than getting on with something else.

So we have settled on device-free days every week, and no devices to be used after the evening meal. Every child has three days a week (including at least one weekend day) when they are not allowed to use computers or mobile devices at home. They choose the days of the week that are device-free. The only exception to the rule is school work.

On device-free days, the kids seem to settle into doing other things more quickly. On the weekend-day that the kids can use their devices, we try and stay relaxed about it, as well as planning some other activities (and jobs), that mean they are not looking at screens all day. Overall, our kids have adjusted to the routine, and there is little we have to do to police it.

The idea of device-free days also seems to have caught on in our social group. Our kids tell us that we are not very popular with some of their friends whose parents have instated the same regime in their homes.