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This article appeared in the March 18, 2010 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  


           Does it seem like your kids are always online? Are their status updates on Facebook seemingly a matter of life and death? If so, your family is far from unique.  What was once the domain of older kids and teens is attracting younger and younger children.

            Facebook and MySpace users are required to be at least 13 years old, but with no real way to verify ages, both sites are popular with young users who say they're older when creating their profiles (two recent studies report that 38% of respondents ages 12 to 14 said they had an online profile).

            Are children mature enough to make good decisions about their online privacy? Most experts think that kids are smart enough by their early teens to know what, and who, to avoid. Younger kids, though, need more parental supervision — for instance, parents should make sure their children’s accounts are set to provide as little personal information as possible, and that their activity can be seen only by confirmed friends.

            In today's Internet-connected world, many parents lament the loss of face-to-face family time and worry that their children are spending too much time online.  In 2008, researchers at the Center for the Digital Future reported that 28% of respondents said family members under 18 spent too much time online, well above the 11% who felt that way in 2000.

            If you are troubled by all the online activity in your house, consider setting ground rules — for instance, limiting screen time (especially on school nights), keeping the computer in a high-traffic area where you can monitor who's doing what, and shutting down the electronics well before bedtime so kids can wind down and you can spend some time just hanging out together and catching up.

            It's also wise to become computer-literate, if you're not already. Learn how to block objectionable material, how to recognize an unsafe website, and how to check out the sites that are most popular with kids and teens. The Intranet is a great tool full of fun and information; so please be sure to help your children enjoy it safely.

            Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at         

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