Stephen Pearson saw his children's grades slip. His older daughter was falling asleep in school, after staying up until the wee hours chatting with friends online.
Pearson quickly learned that despite the Internet's reputation as a trove of knowledge, kids can easily squander their online time playing games, downloading music and messaging friends and strangers alike about parties, crushes and other school-age obsessions.
Like other parents, Pearson has responded by clamping down on his children's Internet usage, giving them an hour each on school nights.
His three children Tanika, 15, Mickayla, 12, and Corey, 8 now spend an hour of their newfound time each night reading off old-fashioned paper.
''I realize the computer is a reading environment also, but it's a different type of reading,'' said Pearson, a deputy sheriff in Waynesville, Mo. ''Kids don't have to use punctuation, don't spell correctly. They have their own language, code set and code system while they are online.''
Relatively few parents set time limits, but experts on children's online usage say the numbers are growing as parents watch their kids get overweight, need stronger eyeglasses or find difficulty dealing with people offline.
''How many kids do you see on a nice day, instead of going to the playground, they are just going to the computer?'' asked Kimberly Young, a psychologist who runs the Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pa.
According to a study from the University of California at Los Angeles, 18 percent of U.S. parents surveyed last year thought their children spent too much time online, up from 11 percent in 2000.
''They are realizing it's like television. You can fritter away your time,'' said Jeff Cole, director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy. ''The Internet doesn't always get a preferred position as it had two years ago when it was associated with homework and teaching.''
For Hamish Rickett, a doctor in Portland, Ore., the realization came when he noticed his three boys would ''rip through homework and do not really spend the time they ought to, because they are in a hurry to get on the Internet.''
For Rebecca Edgar, a former advertising executive in San Jose, Calif., time online became a problem when her three teenage boys began squabbling over it.
''I started monitoring it and found that they were spending five, six, seven hours online,'' she said.
In Australia, Tracey Humphreys said her 12-year-old son, Jordan, ''would do nothing but be on the computer if given a choice.
It's not a healthy lifestyle. I was addicted on computers a few years back, so I know how hard it is to push away from the screen.''
As it is, she said, Jordan has trouble relating to older relatives because he talks about little else. He would also eat by the computer or skip meals entirely.
''When I talk to kids who are using the Internet a lot, I will see their fingers move while they are talking to me, even if they are not in front of the computer,'' said Parry Aftab, an expert on children's Internet usage and safety.
Though kids can make friends and communicate online, kids need face-to-face interaction, said Mel Lampro, who has two teenage boys in Sheffield, England.
''They learn how to read body language, how to speak properly,'' Lampro said. ''The Internet is all shortcuts and smiley faces.''
Since Pearson set time limits, Mickayla has spent more time playing basketball. She also sees real-world friends more often, going roller-skating and bowling with them.
Nonetheless, many parents don't consider Internet usage a problem.
''Parents and children use technology differently,'' said Anne Collier, editor of the Net Family News electronic newsletter. ''They think, 'Gosh, if I use the Internet to e-mail my friends and relatives for a limited amount of time each day, then that's what my kids are doing.'"
Others worry, but don't want to come off as overly strict.
''It's like saying to kids they can't have sugar or chocolate or anything enticing to them,'' said Carole Kealy, a freelance writer in San Francisco. ''They may want it more and sneak around to somebody else's house.''
Her solution? Keeping her 14-year-old son, P.J., busy by enrolling him in sports, assigning extra reading and sending him to camp and summer school.
New software and hardware have come out over the past year or so to help parents enforce time limits. America Online includes such software with its service.
Ginny Meacham, a mother of six in Orem, Utah, uses Time-Scout Monitor to track their time online. Each child can ''buy'' about two hours a day by doing chores.
Before, her oldest son, 17-year-old Jon, would continually complain that time limits fell in the middle of a video game, causing him to lose and turning her into ''a mean, bad, icky, ogre parent.'' Now, there's no arguing, because once the allocation is out, Time-Scout automatically shuts power to the computer's monitor.
Other parents still use old-fashioned means a kitchen timer, a watch or an estimate. Stacey Calhoun, a teacher in La Mirada, Calif., enforces her rules by taking the keyboard, mouse and microphone away when she leaves the house.
Many parents exclude homework time from daily or weekly caps though in the case of 13-year-old Austin Stewart of Cupertino, Calif., downloading pictures of Mandy Moore for a poster counts as homework time because she starred in a movie based on a book Austin read.
Some parents are more concerned more about what their kids do online than how much time they spend.
Those parents are apt to use filtering software to try to block pornography or spy software to get transcripts of chats and lists of Web sites visited.
Sandy Klonne, a sales representative for the maker of Net Nanny parental control software, said filtering is the topic parents ask most about, with time limits ''usually four or five down the list.''
But for parents who consider monitoring and filtering intrusive and a violation of trust and privacy, time limits can be characterized as normal parenting, the way curfews have long existed for concert-going teens. Some even block the Internet as punishment for bad behavior.
And like generations past, parents are finding that digital kids will sometimes try to break the rules sneaking in extra Internet time by going to a friend's house, or trying to fool the baby sitter into thinking no limits apply.
''It's sort of a new struggle that has emerged in the family, (one) that has mirrored struggles with diversions of the past,'' said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. ''Parents are always worried when kids are acting like couch potatoes instead of when they are studying or running around.''
Anick Jesdanun can be reached at netwriter(at)ap.org
On the Net:
UCLA study: http://ccp.ucla.edu/pages/internet-report.asp
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