Anne Tergesen

Wars are raging over the use of the many (and proliferating) screens in my home. Ever since my 8-year-old discovered the joys of online video games in September, he and I (and my two younger sons) have battled for control of the mouse. Our skirmishes have taken some pretty absurd twists and turns—with me frequently coming out the loser. Once, I hid the mouse so they couldn’t go online while I was at work. Of course, I hid it so well, it took me a while to find it when I needed it. Then there’s “Bob.” I’ve programmed this electronic devise—which attaches to the computer—so it logs my sons out after their 15 minutes of daily computer time are up. Bob is impervious to whining and negotiation and never gets lazy about enforcing the time limit. But he unfortunately can create more hassles than he solves. One night, he repeatedly logged me out, wiping out my work in the process. My kids are also on the verge of cracking Bob’s “master code,” which I use to log in for an unlimited time. So now, I need to find “Bob’s” manual to reprogram my “master code.”

Before the kids discovered the computer, we used to wage war over the television. I frequently worried that, while I was at work, they were watching more than their daily one hour allotment. One night, I called the cable company. Sure enough, they offer a free “parental control” feature, which requires you to punch in a secret password to access network and cable programming (unfortunately, it doesn’t block the VCR). Within about 6 weeks, though, the kids figured out my password. When the devise malfunctioned during the baseball playoffs—forcing my husband to go to a bar to watch the Yankees—I gave up on the whole thing.

With the onset of winter weather, things have gone from bad to worse. My middle son—a budding CrackBerry addict if there ever was one—lunges for my husband’s BlackBerry the moment he walks in the door. At first, I thought my son was simply imitating my husband with his thumb-jabbing maneuvers. Then, I realized the BlackBerry comes loaded with video games. Now, my husband has to sneak into the house to find a hiding place for the BlackBerry—and then remember where he put it.

I have a feeling things are only going to get worse. In a few years, they’ll discover instant messaging and social networking sites. They’ll clamor for cell phones. We’ve said no to GameBoys and Xboxes. But what if they save-up their own money to buy these devises? Then, there’s wireless. I’m looking forward to buying a laptop so I can use the computer wherever I want--in the kitchen, for example, to order groceries online. But once the kids catch on, we’ll be waging war over the laptop, too.

Feeling overwhelmed, I called David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and Family, a Minneapolis non profit that runs a program to help families reduce screen time. He's also the author of the forthcoming book "No: Why Kids--of All Ages--Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It."

Walsh reassured me that I'm not crazy. Screen time, he says, is rising. (According to a recent study by the the Kaiser Family Foundation, young people are exposed to 8 1/2 hours of media a day, up an hour in the past five years.) And the trend isn't healthy, says Walsh, whose concerns include childhood obesity and addictions. "As screens keep multiplying, the challenges of supervising them become more and more difficult. A lot of parents have given up the battle."

Walsh's recommendations?

1) Keep all screens out of bedrooms. "Once screens go in kids' rooms, the hours spent on them go up."
2) Sit down with the kids and devise a set of rules governing screen time. Walsh recommends limiting the overall time spent to no more than two hours a day (not counting homework that must be done on the computer). Write the rules down and post them in a visible place, such as on the refrigerator.
3) State the consequences of violating the rules -- and encorce them. "If kids can't abide by the rules or are constantly fighting you over them, simply tell them that that shows they're not yet responsible enough to use the computer," he says.
4) If you don't want an electronic devise--such as a GameBoy or XBox--in your home, stick to your guns, even if your kids offer to foot the bill.