Is your babysitter a computer?

“Mommy, daddy, we’ve made it to level nine!” announces our 7-year old son Ben excitedly. Five minutes later he’s back: “Mommy, daddy, you know Club Penguin?! We’ve finally got enough money to buy a black puffle, a split-level igloo and a disco-floor.”

It’s early on a Sunday morning and my wife Sam and I have absconded our parenting responsibilities to the family computer in exchange for an extra hour or so of precious sleep. Like an alarm clock in permanent snooze mode, however, Ben insists on giving us regular updates on how he and his older brother Joey, 9, are doing in their latest online gaming adventures.

His running commentary is just annoying enough to stop me from feeling guilty about leaving the boys to their own devices in front of a computer screen. Quite frankly, though, I’d rather have them playing online games than watching TV. The internet by its very nature is interactive and requires them to read, think, learn and participate. Watching TV by comparison is a relatively mindless one-way mode of communication that doesn’t exactly encourage strenuous mental activity.

Of course it’s not simply a matter of paying for an ADSL line and plugging your children into a PC whenever you need some peace and quiet.

1. Safety first

It would be ridiculous to assume that everything and everyone on the internet is harmless, benign or appropriate for young kids... far from it. Do install a web filter, which will allow you to define what sorts of websites your children can visit. If you’re an MWEB member, try the MWEB Web Filter, otherwise, there is free web protection software such as K9 or paid-for options like CYBERsitter.

Don’t only rely on your web filter, however. Even quite young kids have been known to circumvent them with relatively little effort. Help your children become savvy internet users instead. Watch them play every now and then and chat to them about what they are doing online. Talk about the need to be careful and the importance of never engaging with other online users unless they are 100% certain that they know them in person. Honesty and openness between you and your kids is the key.

2. Virtual money matters

Your answer to “Dad, what’s our credit card number?” should always be “Take your hands off the keyboard and stop what you’re doing right now!” Talk to your kids about the fact that not everything on the internet is free and that until they are old enough to have their own credit card, they won’t be able to buy anything online themselves.

Membership in some online kids’ clubs requires a monthly fee. Let them play the free version for a while and if they are still very keen, consider buying temporary membership for a month or two. Knowing the attention span of a 9-year old I don’t recommend longer-term financial commitments.

3. No violence

We have agreed as a family not to play any violent computer games, because we all agree that it’s important not to trivialise violence or to desensitise ourselves to the devastating consequences it has in the real world. After a couple of good family chats the boys seem quite comfortable with this decision. Every now and then I walk into the study and Ben throws his hands up into the air and announces “Look dad, no blood!”

4. Find the balance

Playing online games for a couple of hours on the weekend is one thing, but pre-teens shouldn’t spend most of their time in front of the computer. Provide them with a variety of entertainment options and keep everybody happy and in touch with the real world.

Joey and Ben’s online picks

  • Miniclip. A range of free games – we stay clear of the “Shoot ‘Em Up” ones.
  • Agame. Great tween gaming.
  • Nitrome. Easy to play, fun and free.
  • Club Penguin. The online world for tweens.
  • Puzzle Pirates. Virtual pirate adventures for young teens.
Do you let your kids on the internet? How do you monitor them?
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