Enforcing Screen-Time Rules

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There is one thing my kids and I can’t seem to agree on: How much time they should spend watching YouTube videos, chatting on Facebook, and dialing up movies on Netflix. I think a couple of hours after they’ve studied, worked, and played is enough. They think 24 hours a day is about right. Fortunately – at least in this matter -- our home is not a democracy.  What I say goes.

The thing about rules, though, is someone has to enforce them.

Enforcing this particular rule could be a full-time job. If I had no tech tools to help, I’d have to lock up all the moveable screens and do a 24/7 stake out on the big screen in the living room. I have better things to do. So -- as in any totalitarian regime – I harness technology to control and monitor. The most powerful tool in my arsenal is the humble Wi-Fi router. Yes, the little gizmo attached to the cable modem that many people install and forget about.

Some of you may be saying, “Ah hah! If you didn’t have wireless Internet in the house, you wouldn’t have this problem.” That’s true. But I like wireless Internet. And I find it – and the threat of removing it – to be a powerful motivator for my teenagers. I could just unplug it and lock it in a drawer to make a point. (I have done that.) But it works better (and lets me get online) if I can limit the teens’ access whenever I want. One way to limit access is to change the password to something I know and they don't.

Changing your wireless router"s password was once a fairly geeky undertaking. But Cisco recently launched an app that makes it easy. How easy? Imagine this:

My daughter has lately developed the habit of mouthing off. It’s some form of testing, I’m sure. I’m also sure I have to nip it in the bud. So when she says something rude, I respond, “Please don’t talk to me like that.” When the inevitable rude response to that comes, I whip out my smart phone, change the Internet password, and inform her she can have access again when she learns some manners. Then I send the new password to household members who are still allowed online. I can also glance at my phone to see if her computer or iPod is logged on so she can’t bribe her brother for the password and get away with that for long. It’s an immediate, effective, and calm response that always works. Though it is hard to resist letting out the maniacal laugh.

As a rule, I get fancier than that when it comes to controlling my kids’ access to the Internet. But there is something sweet about being able to respond instantly with total Internet annihilation.

For the more complicated stuff I have to pull out my computer and open the router’s software: Cisco Connect. But I do this pretty often, too. For example, my son was recently spending too much time procrastinating on a project. He needed the Internet to research his paper but it was so easy to watch a video or play a game online that he was getting nothing done on the paper. So I blocked his access to YouTube, Netflix, and everything else he finds entertaining and told him he could get it all back when he showed me a finished project. (I also routinely set it to always lock both kids off the Net after 10pm on school nights.) With all his Internet temptations removed, and bedtime approaching, his project was soon done. Because I block his access using the router, I never have to install anything on his computer.

If you are reading this while staked out on the couch guarding your Internet connection, start with the app. If you own a Linksys E-Series, X-Series or Valet router just go to the Android Market or Apple’s App Store and pick it up. It’s free.

You also might want to check to see if your router came with the Cisco Connect software (included with Linksys E-Series and Valet models). It has some nifty parental controls built in that will let you take control of which devices in the house connect and when.

For more on how to gain control of your Internet, check out this longer, more detailed guide at my other blog GeekGirlfriends.com.