Middle School Laptops: How to Set Limits at Home

Fyi, here’s an article I wrote for parents not long ago.

Suggestions from ASL Parents for ASL Parents

Throughout the school day in the Seventh and Eighth Grades, students use MacBook computers. One class might be writing, another researching, another accessing Athena (online academic content), and another making presentations or movies or even music.

Within the ASL environment, there are a lot of rules to be followed. Students are not allowed to use iChat, or play games, or watch movies for fun in class or out of class. Doing so results in a laptop strike, and three strikes produces a white slip, or confiscation of the computer. In some cases, it has resulted in a loss of privileges, the computer staying at school, or disciplinary proceedings.

Internet use and misuse is taken seriously, and Internet histories and “cookies” are spot checked to verify where the students have been voyaging online. Evidence of inappropriate communications or sites, or any indication of cyber-bullying is immediately reported to the Principal and Assistant Principal, who then speak directly to parents.

At home, many parents also make rules about the computer use. It is no fun at all, parents tell us, to have your kids “use the computer for hours and hours and hours” instead of interacting with the family. It is also frustrating to see homework become a mix of socializing with friends, playing games, watching YouTube, surfing the web and maybe writing the paper that is soon due. Having kids “privately” playing online can raise a range of other concerns and safety issues.

These are all very real concerns, and every year we hear from parents who make individual family decisions about the “rules” for computer use at home. Here are some of the best we’ve heard this year:

1) The computer can only be used in the kitchen, or the family room or the living room when mother or father is present. It may not be used privately in the child’s bedroom or other rooms in the home. This is the most common rule created by ASL parents, and it recommended as the best way to remain aware of how much students are using the computers, and what they are using them for. This rule is perfectly reasonable and common among ASL families– it’s definitely not “cruel or unusual.”

2) Recreational computer use should be limited. Computers can be used for relaxing in a number of ways—the latest way in my home is leaving on the live web cam on Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park (to spot passing wildlife and the geyser). However, mixing recreation (chatting with friends, visiting fan sites, watching videos) can distract from getting work done and result in less effective studying. Every family has to decide what the limits are for recreational computer use (30-60 minutes a night in some families) and whether or not it can be done during homework time. Many families only allow the recreational use AFTER homework is done (not before or during).

3) Set a nightly time limit for all computer use. “We finally put our foot down,” one parent told us. “We now ban all computer use after 9:30 p.m. They get turned off no matter what.” For other families, the limit might be 8 p.m. or 10 p.m.—the really important thing is that there is a limit, and that family time is just as important as computer time.

4) Checking Internet History and Cookies is recommended. Another top recommendation from ASL parents is to tell children in advance that their Internet browsing history and cookies will be occasionally checked, and that is a condition of using the computer at home. The advance warning should also review what type of sites are not to be visited by the children, and what type of consequences there could be if such sites show up in the history files. Typically, reviewing the information has to be done every two weeks, in front of the child, on a random basis. This review will help parents identify what sites are the most popular, as well as what sites are being visited “away from school” and “away from home.” Note, however, that some misleading information may appear (such as “Adult Friend Finder” traces, simply from visiting a Facebook page).

5) Knowing about iChat, social networking pages and Twitter is recommended. Some parents will insist on knowing their children’s passwords for email accounts or online sites like Facebook that may be used. Others parents will create their own Facebook accounts, and insist on being “friended” by their children as a way of being mostly aware of what is occurring on the site. It is well known that Middle School students can begin the process of broadening their social connections with other students online, and many experts (such as Michael Thompson and Perry Aftab) advise against “cold turkey” banning of appropriately used social tools, but that doesn’t mean that a parent needs to be kept out of the loop. Many parents of Middle School students will choose to put limits on how much privacy their kids can expect and have.

6) Ask for help if needed. We hear interesting stories about how “the school says I have to use the laptop every night for four hours” and “the school says you can’t put limits on my computer use.” As noted at the start, ASL has many limits on computer use at school, and we’re happy to accommodate requests for help on these issues. Last year, the software “white list” was designed and implemented to increase the focused academic use of the laptops. By request, we can enable Apple Parental Controls (to limit software use, see below) or install K9 Internet Protection software for parents with concerns about inappropriate online content.

7) Prepare for the Future. The last recommendation we hear from parents is that the issues posed by computer use (either with school laptops, or home PCs, or computer use at a friend’s house) are the beginning of an interesting series of parenting challenges that don’t stop for awhile. As one parent noted, “Once the computer things were worked out in Middle School, the stage was set for new challenges in High School: dating, drinking, staying out at night, driving and a whole range of issues where we had to be clear about the family rules.”

At the moment, we’ve implemented our own versions of all of the recommendations above when our children use the three laptops we already own.

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