- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Amanda Enright, 8, loves to read. The second-grader is in the Arlington Central Library on a recent weekday afternoon with her mother, Judi, and her younger brother to take out some books. But her stack of selected books awaits her attention as she spends time on one of the computers in the spacious children's section.
"We have a laptop at home, but my dad is always on it," she says with a sigh. "He uses it for work, my mom uses it to look for stuff and to shop, and that doesn't give my brother and me much time to play games or look at things for kids on the Internet. I wish we had more than one computer."
Having a single computer, with limits on time allotted in the demanding digital universe, is just the way Mrs. Enright likes it.
"I'm very strict about computer time. Computers can be useful, but I worry about our society's growing dependence upon them," she says. "I've been at a checkout line when the computer goes down, and the cashier wasn't even able to make change. Computers have made parents lazy. We still need to teach our children how to think, how to do math without the calculator and how to do research without the Internet."
Mrs. Enright is not alone in her concern about digital dependence. In a growing number of Washington homes, parents are finding they have to set ground rules as children vie for time on the family computer, and they struggle with limiting access to the untamed World Wide Web.
"Young people these days are quite computer savvy," says Maria Gentile, a librarian in the Arlington Central Library's Young Adult section. "But their skills don't necessarily help them with their schoolwork. They're very adept at using e-mail or being in chat rooms or playing games, but a surprising number of them have no idea about how to use the Internet for research. Plus, they have no patience. They think they can jump on the Web and do their research in a flash, but it can take even longer than looking up the information in a book."
Mrs. Gentile says parents need to feel comfortable in navigating the Internet to help their children spend productive time in front of the computer. The Arlington Library system does not filter out inappropriate Web sites on its Internet-connected terminals, although other local libraries, such as those in Loudoun County, have installed filters.
The best way for parents to allow their children to enjoy the benefits of the digital age while avoiding the dangers is to become informed about the medium, says Karen Marshall, president and founder of Computer Tots/Computer Explorers. The Fairfax-based computer education service offers computer enrichment courses.
She says parents also need to set, state and restate clear Internet safety rules such as never giving out your name, address or phone number on line.
"Parents do their children a terrible disservice if they let their fear of technology or worry about the predators that can lurk in some Web sites prevent their children from exploring this exciting new world," Mrs. Marshall says. "Make computer time and games a family activity. There should be nothing secret about it."
Her own computer has resided in her kitchen ever since her now-17-year-old daughter was 3 and the family got its first computer.
Following are some tips from experts on how to set guidelines for family computer time.
Create access based on need. Work or school demands come first. Deadlines takes top priority. Game or chat time comes last.
Once work demands are out of the way, set up a sign-up sheet with set time limits.
If computer demands cannot be met, it may be time to consider a second computer or to set up a schedule that allows regular access to another computer source such as visits to the local library.
When looking for a second computer, carefully analyze the need. If it is primarily for research on the Internet, e-mail or simple word processing, be careful not to overspend on an expensive computer.
Be clear and consistent about how much time can be spent on the Internet or playing computer games. Many parents limit TV usage during the school week but don't limit computer time, thinking that any time in front of the computer is productive.

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