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Six hours of YouTube may be good for them

'Every single minute, as soon as she gets home from school until she goes to sleep at night, she's on the Internet. And if we try to pry her away, it's this huge fight. We hardly ever get to spend any time with her. It's like this powerful force that keeps pulling her back. All she does is sit there in front of that screen. Are her brain and her body turning into mush?"

First it was television. Then it was video games (especially for boys).

"Hey, what's wrong with video games? At least I don't watch as much TV."

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But now it's the Internet that holds them hostage more than anything else.

They socialize. They talk to each other. They comment on each other's photo galleries. They get information. They play online games. They watch the latest YouTube video.

And it's just one way in which teenagers connect to their world of friends, and to a huge world of information. Often these connections are simultaneous: They're checking out a friend's Facebook page while they comment about it to another friend on their cellphone, while getting an urgent text message from yet another friend who's telling a joke he's just heard. (It is, of course, multitasking.)

So parents worry: Is all that time that they spend online - just the time itself, the fact that they are hooked up to the Internet for such a large proportion of their waking hours - bad for them?

Does it take away from physical activity? Yes. Does it take away from family time? Yes - to some degree. It's not as if all teenagers were dying to hang out with their parents before the Internet entered the picture.

"This family time has already gone over three minutes. Can I leave now? Please."

Does it erode intellectual and social skills? They may lose the ability to write in whole, clear sentences, or the tolerance for being out of touch with friends for longer than five minutes.

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"Janelle, I think one of my fingernails is chipped."

But over all, I think, the drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits: The kids are learning the skills necessary to succeed - or just survive - in today's world. They're learning how to communicate with others in the language of the world they will inhabit. They're learning how to find information. Most of them are better at it than us.

A recent study directed by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University stated that for kids today, "the Internet is a positive and powerful space for socializing, learning and engaging in public life."

And anyway, what would they do if they weren't on the Internet?

"They could read a book. Or maybe develop a hobby. Or go outside to get some exercise, for goodness' sake. I don't know, maybe they could write poetry. They could experience what it's like to be alone for at least a little bit of the time, not constantly - every waking minute - hooked up with some friend."

All of this is true. What would happen if you took away all Internet use?

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"She just sits there staring at the wall making these little sighing noises, and occasionally a little tear runs down her cheek."

Look, some control is good. They do not need to be on the Internet all the time.

"You are so wrong. I do need to be on the Internet all the time. How am I going to know what's going on? What if I miss something?"

But I do not think it is possible to say how much is too much for any given child.

Rather you should go with what you are comfortable with, and that will vary from parent to parent and child to child.

Better, I think, is to demand that there are certain times that they be off the Internet: an end time at night, during family dinnertime, any time you want to be with them, and perhaps a completely arbitrary Internet-free time - for example, an hour a night or Saturdays.

They will hate it, but those are your rules.

How do you enforce this? If they break your rules too regularly, you can temporarily take away Internet use - for example, for a day.

In effect, they can use the Internet. It is just that they have to do it within your rules.

My main point: Through the Internet they learn how to interact with the world. It is just that the interaction takes place on a screen.

Next column: How much should you be monitoring what they're doing online?

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

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