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Digital dos and don'ts for families

(BPT) - Serving nutritious meals, ensuring everyone gets enough sleep and physical activity, helping kids navigate the emotional challenges of growing up - parents have a lot to think about...

(BPT) - Serving nutritious meals, ensuring everyone gets enough sleep and physical activity, helping kids navigate the emotional challenges of growing up - parents have a lot to think about when it comes to keeping their kids healthy. Over the past decade, one more concern has emerged, and it's gaining in importance: teaching children how to live a healthy digital life.

The percentage of American children with access to home computers increased 70 percent between 1984 and 2010, and the percentage with home Internet access rose 35 percent between 1997 and 2010, according to research by the nonprofit Child Trends research center. Eighty-five percent of children have access to computers in their home, the organization says. Nearly 97 percent of American households own at least one TV, according to Nielsen.

Clearly, the digital world has become a big part of life for kids of all ages. With schools back in session and the holidays approaching, many families will spend even more time in the digital world, doing homework, holiday shopping, or replacing outdoor activities with TV when the weather turns cold. Just as parents teach children the value of self-discipline in their eating, exercise and behavior, they need to share lessons of digital discipline as well.

As your family gets into a fall routine, keep these digital do's and don'ts in mind:

Do:

* Limit screen time - The Mayo Clinic reports that too much screen time (whether TV or computer) has been linked to childhood obesity, poor sleep, behavioral problems, poor school performance, and even violence. Many child health advocates recommend limiting the amount of time children watch TV or spend on the computer. When kids aren't sitting in front of a screen, parents should encourage them to engage in physical activity, creative pursuits or in-person socializing.

* Keep everything in the open - Online activity should only take place with a parent present. Keep the family computer - and all Internet use - in a common area of the home. Be around when children are online. You don't have to look over their shoulders, but you should be aware of what they are doing while they're online.

* Take the first look - If your child wants to visit a new website or join a particular social media group, check it out first. If the content seems inappropriate, steer your child away from the site.

* Use helpful tools - Protecting kids online can be a challenge, but tools like SafetyWeb can make it easier. The tool helps parents keep kids safe online by monitoring online activity - both the child's and what the child is exposed to. An active blog discusses the latest challenges with rearing kids in the digital age.

Don't:

* Let kids isolate themselves in the digital world - While kids might enjoy a TV show or video game together, computer time is too often alone time for them. Children who spend a lot of time online can become cut off from the real world. Encourage children to engage in healthful face-to-face interaction with their peers, whether it's as part of a sports team, volunteer group or just hanging out together at a friend's house.

* Allow digital communication to replace family face-time - Technology has made it easier than ever for families to stay in touch when they're apart at work or school. Too often, however, family members rely on a quick text or instant message to reach someone in another room of the house. When you're home together, set aside digital communication and go in search of each other.

* Skip exercise - Families that exercise together tend to be healthier, studies show. Don't forego physical activity in favor of screen time. Instead of sitting down together to watch a TV show, gather up the family and head to the bowling alley.

* Forget to lead by example - For all that the digital world has expanded the influences to which children are exposed, parents still remain the most influential people in their children's lives. Modeling digital discipline and healthy behaviors is an important part of teaching those lessons to your children.

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