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Originally published June 29, 2012 at 12:04 PM | Page modified July 4, 2012 at 12:14 PM

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School's out, but screen-time limits for younger users should remain

Teens, tweens and technology It's important for parents to be clear and consistent about the amount of time during the summer that teens and tweens are allowed to be on the computer and what tasks or chores they need to finish before turning it on.

Special to The Seattle Times

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School is out for the summer, and kids have more free time to play video games, read Facebook posts and surf for the latest viral YouTube video or TV show.

Parents may adopt a number of strategies, though, to avoid the conflict that can arise when teens and tweens want to plop down for hours on the couch to plug in and tune out.

TV, movies, video and computer games should be limited to no more than one or two hours a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and too much screen time has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep, behavioral problems and less time for active creative pursuits and play.

"It's a case of expectations and negotiations," said Gina Anstey, a Seattle mother of two tweens. The Anstey kids need to make sure their laundry is put away, their room is "pretty clean," and they've practiced their piano and trombone before they turn on the TV or open the laptop. "They also need to get some exercise or go outside and play for a while," she said.

It's important to be clear and consistent about the amount of time teens and tweens are allowed to be on the computer and what tasks or chores they need to finish before turning it on.

Dr. Terri Lee, a psychiatrist in Seattle, says parents should also model the behavior they want to encourage by putting down their own cellphones and taking the family on activities such as a bike ride, author talk or picnic. Parents can "create a culture of alternatives to electronics at every age — that is what the kids should be accustomed to," she said.

Some families brainstorm a list of what teens can do when they are bored and post it on the refrigerator. Others go to the library for a pile of books or buy some new board games when summer starts. Parents can pull their own favorite books off the shelf and encourage teenagers to discover Tom Clancy spy books, Stephen King horror stories or classics such as "Gone with the Wind."

Of course, the easiest way to keep kids off the computer is to keep them busy with summer camps, classes or volunteer jobs. "Ask what they are interested in and look together for that dance workshop, or sports camp," said Lee. Most high schools also require service hours for graduation, she noted, and summer is a great time to fill those.

Techiya Levine, the mother of three in Seattle and a parent educator, advises some technological assistance. Computers have parental controls to limit the hours the computer can be used or to block questionable websites. Internet routers can be set to restrict access to only certain times of the day.

"The Internet only kicking on at 3 p.m. would likely help," she said.

The Internet and video games are so alluring to the chemistry of the adolescent brain that almost all teens will push the boundaries and sneak on for extra time, said Seattle psychologist and speaker Laura Kastner. Parents might want to take the Internet connector with them, or change the home network password when they go to work — to keep teens and tweens from spending too much time online.

The book, "Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens" co-authored by Kastner, can help parents learn to set guidelines and lay out consequences with their children.

Lee works with teens and online addiction. She advises turning off all electronics at a certain hour and keeping on top of online activities.

"Parents should monitor what the child is doing, check out the games they want on sites like www.commonsensemedia.org and even play together," she said, adding that oversight shouldn't stop in the high-school years.

Not all electronic pursuits are created equal. Educational activities like online chess, 3-D building modeling, video editing or word games are educational and don't need to be as restricted, said Lee.

Teenagers might also like to watch TED talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design topics that interest them at www.ted.com/talks. Skyping (like video conferencing) is better than Facebook as a way for kids to communicate, she said, because it offers all the social cues they need to learn to read such as tone of voice, body language and facial expression.

Lee's daughter, age 16, had advice to share, too.

"If you want your kids to get out of the house, give them a ride and a little spending money," said Abby. "I love when my mom fills up my Orca card."

Julie Weed is a Seattle free-lance writer. Look for her other Teens, Tweens and Technology stories at seattletimes.com/personaltechnology.

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