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Back to School in a Wired World

Are electronic gadgets turning kids into multitasking pros, or are they just dragging them down?

Q. My 8-year-old son loves video games -- so much that he plays up to three hours each day. Should I limit video games by turning them into a reward only for good behavior?

A. "That's a bad idea," Milteer says. "We're reinforcing behavior that's not always healthy."

"I would offer them activities other than extra TV time," she says. Better rewards -- for example, a simple park outing or a brand new pair of skates -- would encourage physical activity.

In fact, parents should enforce rules to keep kids from playing video games for three hours a day, experts say. According to Milteer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that those ages 2-18 should engage in no more than two hours per day of "screen time," which includes TV, computer or video games, even watching movies or playing games on a cell phone.

Children under age 2 should have no screen time at all, such as TV viewing, Milteer adds.

Reading, doing large-piece puzzles, and playing with other toddlers are better choices for development and social skills, she says.

To help limit time spent on electronic games, don't put a TV or computer in a child's room, Milteer says. Instead, "Put them in a kitchen or a family room where the parents can monitor computer or game activity."

Q. My son spends most of his free time online, playing games, downloading music, instant-messaging, and surfing web sites. When does this activity cross the line into being unhealthy?

A. Falling grades, loss of friends, sleep disturbance -- any of these signs can point to "too much electronic stimulation," Healy says.

Try to monitor your child's Internet use, she suggests. If you're worried that his or her computer habits are seriously disrupting academic, home, or social life, consider seeking help from teachers or psychological professionals, Healy adds. "It's worth talking to a counselor about it. This is not a trivial matter."

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Reviewed on August 16, 2007

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