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Is my 12-year-old nerd spending too much time on the computer?

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The question

My 12 year old nerdy son loves the computer, for learning about science and technology. If he's not using it for video games, can I let him sit there for three or four hours a night?

The answer

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Computers at home, used for learning, provide many benefits. The new "library" is open 24 hrs every day of the week and there is no need to battle traffic on the way. This convenience may be both a plus and a minus.

If your son loves learning, keep on encouraging and supervising him. Compliment him that he is not wasting time and that he is using his talents to be productive.

The issue of three or four hours a night concerns me, especially when you mention he sits there for long periods. Breaks - five minutes at least once every 30 minutes - will reduce eye strain and encourage better posture. Get him to walk away from the computer. He can stretch a bit and go outside for some fresh air.

Some computers have a program that automatically let the screen go blank at times. The purpose is to enforce breaks by default.

Allow some "down time" between intense studying and bedtime. The last hour or so before bedtime can be used to relax, read a book, and to visit with parents. Dedicate this time to catching up on the day's events. I have met families who enforced this routine and the kids, after a while, love face-to-face moments. This meaningful communications has become more difficult because of technology.

Also, light emission from a computer screen may affect the melatonin production. Melatonin, produced by the pituitary gland in our heads, makes us sleepy. Light in the later hours - even from a computer screen will delay the melatonin production and make sleep more difficult.

Send pediatrician Peter Nieman your questions at He will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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