Instant Messaging

Dear Sharon,

“Instant messaging” every night on our home computer has taken over our son’s so called “family time” and more importantly his homework time. Should we be actively limiting this activity? I can’t help but equate it with my own teen years spent on the phone every night with my friends. Do I have to put a lock on the computer like my parents put on our phone?

Dear parent of a typical teen,

As you may know, your question is on the minds of many parents of teens. The computer and all that it brings to our lives is a difficult thing to elegantly incorporate into family life.

I believe that family, homework and instant messaging time all play an important role in a healthy adolescence; here are some of the reasons why.
Family time is essential because it maintains the all important relationship between parent and child at a time when pressures from peers, school and society can be overwhelming for teens to sort through without adult help. Family time is time away from outside pressures, time to reconnect with Mom or Dad, have fun and if possible talk over the many challenge children this age often juggle. Family time can mean anything from playing a video or card game together, laughing or talking about a popular TV show or taking a trip to a favorite restaurant, movie or shopping spot. If parents and teens have regular times like these, communication between everyone almost always improves.

Homework can build to unreasonable proportions in the teen years as growing minds and bodies that need increasing amounts of sleep also are facing unwieldy amounts of homework. If homework isn’t done with care, grades can easily slip and anxiety from families about their child’s future can often escalate. Homework needs to get done, sometimes with parental supervision or help. Finding the time to do it can be a major challenge. Even though your parents were right to put a limit on your phone calls and their potential for endless day and nighttime chatter, I assume you feel at least some of those conversations were important to you. Just like your calls, instant messages can be full of gossip and idle chit chat but sometimes they include heart to heart talks that make a world of difference. They can be one way friendships start and blossom without the awkwardness that in person teen contact often presents. Many teens experience daily social and academic pressures and as stress builds large peer groups can develop an excessively judgmental tone. One on one chat can be an easier way to build confidence and social skills. They can help a teen feel better about themselves and the complicated world around them.

Fitting all three things into our hectic family schedules is not at all easy. Parents and teens need to keep in good contact and make scheduling decisions based on which of the three issues is in need of time and attention. This will probably vary from week to week. During midterm and finals time homework may need to be the priority, during vacation and summers family and friends take precedent. Ideally all three activities need to have some time each week.

If you can, sit down and talk with your teen about a proposed schedule. This may well include limiting the number of hours each day for instant messaging. If you know the parents of your son’s friends you might talk to them as well about how they are handling the amount of computer messaging going on. If you don’t know them or they don’’t agree with your legitimate concern you will have to put your foot down without their help. Almost every parent has times when they have to say no to their teen.

Limiting instant messaging time is not easy for any family. Setting aside time with each other to have fun and then talk things through can help resolve this issue and many others.

Good luck!