Tyler Hall has had a computer at home for the past six years. And from the enthusiastic perspective of the Hixson, Tenn., eighth-grader, the personal computer is the best invention in his lifetime "and probably ever."
Ellen Pearlman, editor in chief of Home PC magazine, also extols the advantages of home computers. But she is cautious in her assessment of their impact on family life. "It enables kids to learn at an incredible pace and in a way they couldn't learn before," she says. "But that should always be balanced by the kid having the opportunity to go outside and ride a bike, play baseball, jump rope. The best things that can happen in families are people getting together talking, communicating, and loving each other. Nothing replaces the human contact."
Many kids will play for hours on a computer, often watching less TV as a result. As Ms. Pearlman is quick to point out, children doing homework assignments can get on-line access to encyclopedias and experts in their topic. As a result, their parents have generally welcomed computers into their home as a powerful learning tool.
But with the computers have arrived concerns about whether they are a new version of the "electronic babysitter," as television has been called. Many parents are also wary about access to "chat rooms" and on-line services, some of which may be inappropriate for children.
Laura Morrall of Framingham, Mass., says that many of the computer games favored by her offspring are quite educational. "It's helping them understand society and civilization," she says of her two sons' enjoyment of "Sim City" and "Civilization." And she says the computer games are better than the video games that the boys used to play constantly.
But she and her husband, Joseph Duggan, give two thumbs-down to "chat rooms" where anyone can join the conversation. "For a while, one of my sons was fascinated by talking in the Kids Corner [of an on-line service]. But there were times that it wasn't appropriate because someone would barge in with foul language, or something strange, so it wasn't always a comfortable situation." So they dropped the on-line service.
The best way to know what your children are exposed to through their computer use is to "sit with children while they use the on-line service," says Dr. Kimberly Young, professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, Bradford. "Being in the same room with them, you can learn with and from your kid. Say, 'Show me how to use America Online.' It's an opportunity to spend some time together and have the child show off some computer skills."
And to keep kids away from offensive on-line material even when parents can't be there, a lot of software programs are available now that will screen out objectional material, Pearlman says.
Cyber Patrol, the best known of these, can be downloaded for free from http://www.cyberpatrol.com, and is also provided at no cost by many Internet service providers. There is generally a fee, however, for an ongoing subscription to the service's frequently updated list of potentially problematic sites.
One of the disadvantages of site blockers is that kids often know more about the computer than their parents and can disable the software. Another drawback of trying to block particular sites "is that the purveyors of the stuff we might not want our kids to get to are pretty clever," says Jim Hooper, director of technical instruction at Baylor School in Chattanooga. "They frequently change their site names."
Mr. Hooper suggests that parents develop guidelines for computer use so that children know what is permissible and what isn't. Not just unacceptable sites, but also on-line behavior and the amount of time that can be spent on the computer, avoiding the plaintive cry heard in every home where there's a child and a computer: "Just 10 more minutes, Mom."
Susan Ewing, a psychotherapist and mother in Chattanooga, advises: "Sit down with children and negotiate a set of rules. If the deal is that you can stay on the computer for an hour and then it's your brother's turn, you learn that you can't pout or throw a temper tantrum or beg for extra time."
Some parents avoid arguments by using software such as "Time's Up," (Fresh Software Company) which can set limits for each user, program, or day of the week, and gives warnings before the computer is automatically shut down at the end of the assigned time.
"Kids will always tend to overdo things that they love," Pearlman says. "It's up to parents to moderate that behavior. That's true of computers, it's true of television, it's true of eating junk food. Parental responsibility is important no matter what a child is doing."