Keeping a kid on-task
April 4, 2006 8:12 PM   Subscribe

My teenage son is way too involved with IM and a MUD, to the exclusion of his homework, and it's turning into a real problem. He needs the Internet for his homework, so we don't want to cut him off, just restrict some of the services he's over-using. But our DSL modem won't allow us to implement the restrictions we need.

Our modem is an Actiontec GT701-wg, and it has no parental controls and won't allow me to block specific ports. I'd be happy to consider another hardware firewall that could sit between the internal network and the Internet, or even software (though he's certainly capable of cracking software protection). I'd like to be able to restrict services by time of day.

Our son has ADD (with its attendant focus problems) and isn't into "questionable" websites. The computer is in the living room and we see all that happens. This isn't a matter of trust, but a matter of priorities and cooperation.
posted by lhauser to Computers & Internet (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
we see all that happens.

Can't you then just watch to make sure he doesn't IM till the homework gets done?
posted by ChasFile at 8:16 PM on April 4, 2006

Potential side-rail:

Do teens really use the internet that much for homework? I always assumed that this was at best a half truth. And other than encyclopedia-type research, I really can't think of when a non-computer science high school teacher would want a teen logging onto the internet to do the assignments.

And for your actual question, this looks like it has time of day restrictions.
posted by ontic at 8:28 PM on April 4, 2006

He needs the Internet for his homework

Doubtful. People got homework done before the internet, they can still get work done without the internet. I'd bet that he'll retain more and do better without the distraction.

Pull the plug on his internet time.

Now if you'll pardon me, I need to chase some kids off my lawn...
posted by unixrat at 8:31 PM on April 4, 2006

Computer in "public" space. Remind your child that they should be working on their schoolwork before they're using the computer for recreation.

A coworker of mine has a teenaged daughter with similar problems. The daughter has gone to such lengths as moving the CPU case into her room and propping the LCD monitor between her legs.

As a parent, you're going to have to exercise some control.

On the other hand, if you child is going to go onto college without developing self-restraint skills/habits, things aren't going to be pretty.

Sorry, but I don't have any real concrete solutions... best of luck.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:32 PM on April 4, 2006

Oops, actually it looks like the trial software that comes with it has the restrictions.
posted by ontic at 8:33 PM on April 4, 2006

What OS are you running? Windows 2000 and XP (Pro, at least) will allow you to block specific ports, but it's slightly complex and doesn't use the Firewall feature, as you might expect.

This page
describes the process for Windows 2000, but will also work for XP. You'll need to figure out which ports IM and MUD are using, and block outbound requests to them.
posted by pmbuko at 8:35 PM on April 4, 2006

Why does your son need the internet for his homework? I'm curious...
posted by jdroth at 8:40 PM on April 4, 2006

I use Google and Wikipedia all the time for simple homework and studying. That said, perhaps you could create a user account which does not have access to those programs, just the internet browser.
posted by jenovus at 8:44 PM on April 4, 2006

With all due respect, any approach like this is doomed to failure, for the simple reason that your kid almost certainly knows a lot more about your computer than you do, and will figure out a way around any kind of block you install. (That's why local anti-porn HTTP filtering is a waste of time; any boy old enough to be interested in porn is also old enough to figure out a way to bypass the filter, which usually isn't too difficult.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:50 PM on April 4, 2006

I'm sorry if this is a derail but we deal with some of the ADD/homework issues and one of the most basic things that has helped us is a timer on the computer. Set it for small intervals like 15-20 minutes and have it make some sort of an audible noise when the time is up. Your son can use it to set break times [10 minutes of IM and then 40 more minutes of studying] or work times [40 more minutes of studying and then]. I've found that sometimes gentle, non-human mid-course corrections can help once you've already got some other system in place.

As for that, I'd similarly suggest a user profile on the computer that flat out doesn't have anything other than a kiosk version of a browser and a word processor.
posted by jessamyn at 8:52 PM on April 4, 2006

I use Google and Wikipedia all the time for simple homework and studying. That said, perhaps you could create a user account which does not have access to those programs, just the internet browser.

If his vices are IM and MUDs, restricting him to just an internet browser won't do any good. ports all the major IM clients to the web, and there are plenty of web-based telnet clients he could use to MUD. He'll find this out on his own about 10 minutes after he logs on...

I can't lecture anybody on how to raise a child, but to me the solution is to tell him he has to get his homework done before he can goof on, and then, when he doesn't do that, walk into his room and pull the plug on his computer.
posted by Hildago at 9:12 PM on April 4, 2006

Why not block the sites using the hosts file (and unblocking on weekends?)

The wikipedia link also has software for managing the hosts file.

How about buying a cheap router that has blocking?
posted by filmgeek at 9:30 PM on April 4, 2006

(sorry to derail, but dear God thank you for pointing out! It'll actually really help me out with some work-related stuff.)
posted by kalimac at 9:38 PM on April 4, 2006

Yeah, I was kind of pretending that every teeenager ever hasn't heard of Portable AIM or anything like that. Oh well.
posted by jenovus at 9:49 PM on April 4, 2006

Don't try to rely on a technological solution to this problem. It won't work, and it won't address the problem. You're there, seeing what he's doing. If even with the ability to see what he's doing you can't (or he can't) control his instant messaging, you need to cut off his internet use. High school students don't do enough research that they need to use the internet on a regular basis. Let him use the internet for an hour a night, then pull the plug - physically, if you have to.

Basically, my point is that you have to take an active role in this and not trust in passive technological solutions. This is a problem that will be crippling in secondary school if he can't learn now to live without IM. Cutting off the internet and not just IM might help him focus on his schoolwork - because the internet can be plenty distracting without IM.
posted by Dasein at 9:54 PM on April 4, 2006

FWIW, there are plenty of courses, from middle school on, that have course material on the school website. . .there is always a hard copy backup, the for many many teachers, the preferred method for assignments, reading material, updates, etc. is her/his website.

I would say that you have to devote time to knowing what the homework is, and hovering over him enough to make sure that the homework is done before chatting commences. It'll put a crimp in his social life but hopefully he'll get in a more positive habit.

My daughter comes home everday and fires up the laptop and emails and chats, then starts her homework, has dinner, then more homework. . she has like a 3.8 so I am not that concerned. . .
posted by Danf at 10:03 PM on April 4, 2006

There is something to be said for learning how to look stuff up in books, caveman-style. (Though as a law student I'd be little more than a slobbering idiot without Lexis.) Why? Because students learn very early on what the reputable reference materials are in the school library. But there's no "truthiness" training for the internets. If your kid relies on Wikipedia for everything, there's going to come a day when he finds out that Bill Clinton wasn't the 42nd LOL L33T HAX0R of the United Kingdom.

FWIW, I ran a BBS in high school and the experience was absolutely critical to my social and intellectual development. YMMV. Do what it takes to get the grades back up but beware of stifling something that means a great deal to your son.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 10:11 PM on April 4, 2006

Speaking as a MUD admin for nearly a decade now (and a MUD player for... oh god):

For kids (and many, many adults), the time spent MUDding can easily spiral out of control, and MUD dealers admins are sensitive to this issue. Also, MUD admins can easily freeze/deactivate characters or even temporarily ban players from connecting at all. In fact, it's all rather trivial. The hard part is to demonstrate that a) the player involved is a minor, and b) you're their guardian trying to watch out for his best interests and not one of his chums trying to pull a stunt. If you can establish the situation, then most MUD admins will be happy to cooperate with you in scheduling and/or temporarily denying access for the player involved in accordance with the guardian's wishes. The methods at the disposal of a MUD admin are far more effective than any client-side lockouts a parent may attempt. In fact, unless you're more tech savvy than your son is (possible but unlikely), trying to block MUDs client-side is IMO a complete waste of time.

To get the ball rolling, take a look at the MUD client he uses (for example, zMUD, JMC, etc) to see which MUD(s) he's connecting to. Then, jot down his characters' names and send an email with those names and your home IP address to the admin(s) to explain your situation. The better and more experienced admins may even be able to help with tailoring motivations/solutions specific to their MUD as well.

It's a well-known aphorism in the MUD community: RL (real life) first! Ahem, nevermind the fact that Everquest widows existed long before Everquest...
posted by DaShiv at 10:21 PM on April 4, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for some fine answers.

First of all, he is assigned homework that requires Internet access. Not all of it, by any means, but some.

Second, we're using XP. I wish we had our own domain, so I could restrict login times by account. I'll look at the port blocking.

I agree there is not an entirely technological solution to this. I'd like this as one step in the process. It's not a matter of "telling him to do his homework"...he's been told that many times, and he goes and does what he wants anyway.

This gives me more to think about and some avenues to explore...
posted by lhauser at 10:21 PM on April 4, 2006

I agree with Dasein; forget trying to use technology to limit your son's IM and mud time. I would suggest talking with him and coming up with a solution that works for both of you.

This is greatly simplified, but e.g. all homework must be done before any mudding or IMing.

If he has ADD and needs frequent breaks while doing his homework or whatever, let him know breaks are fine. In fact maybe tell him he gets a 15 minute break for every 45 mins of work, or a 5 min break every 15 mins of work?

You can even login to a mud for 5 mins and poke around and say hi to your friends... maybe let him use his timed breaks to mud if he is going through withdrawl... just some thoughts.
posted by blahtsk at 10:22 PM on April 4, 2006

Response by poster: Oh, and Saucy Intruder... you are so right. It's the fine line between getting the work done and letting his creativity run free that we're trying to walk here.
posted by lhauser at 10:23 PM on April 4, 2006

With all due respect, any approach like this is doomed to failure, for the simple reason that your kid almost certainly knows a lot more about your computer than you do, and will figure out a way around any kind of block you install.

That may not be true. Some kids are stupid, just look at myspace.

(Although, the parents here don't know how to setup parental filtering)

Anyway, I would say get involved with your kids teachers and find out specifically what homework assignments he has to do. Then make sure he does the non-internet requiring ones before. I was in high school about a decade ago, so I had the Internet and almost never had to use it.

Unless your high school has online classwork I just don't see much of a need. The times he does use the net you can sit there with him and make sure he's doing the work.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 PM on April 4, 2006

(although if he's muding, he's probably pretty smart, I would imagine)
posted by delmoi at 11:01 PM on April 4, 2006

Actually the poster said the kid could bypass software solutions.
posted by delmoi at 11:01 PM on April 4, 2006

If you allow unrestricted connections on ANY ports, he can work around your blocks. The only way to block him on a firewall level is by default-denying everything, and then allowing connections only to specific websites you allow.

If you allow port 80 anywhere (or any other port), then all he needs is a friend with a Linux box to work around any restrictions you impose. His friend would run an SSH server on port 80. SSH has the ability to tunnel out any other ports he wants. He bounces his connections, in other words, off his friend's machine, and he can talk to anyone on the net, on any port, by bouncing off his friend's machine.

Another way to do it would be to install a second machine running a proxy server. His machine would have no net access at all... it can talk only to the proxy server, which will talk only to particular websites. That would also work.

Normal 'firewall' protections are easily bypassed... if you can get one port out to a friendly machine, you're out.
posted by Malor at 11:53 PM on April 4, 2006

Sigh, that needed more editing.
posted by Malor at 11:58 PM on April 4, 2006

Unplug that Actiontec GT701-wg and walk away with it. If you need to go out, take it with you. Take it to work. Assure your son that it will be returned when homework is finished and grades are good.

If the kid swears he needs net access for an assignment, tell him to let you know when he gets to that part of the homework and you'll be glad to pull up a chair next to him and read a book while he connects and does his research. Watch how much actual research he needs to do. Count how many times he is interrupted by instant messages, how many times he checks his mail, how many non-research pages he has to check while he's browsing, how much he fiddles with his phone. Show him how to turn everything off and how to use books.

If the kid finds a way around modem removal (another modem?), cancel your home internet service. You know it's wasting everyone's time. Get rid of it. Cancel cable while you're at it. And does he have a phone? Does he need it? Tell him you might resubscribe to everything if you feel like it and if he gets As this year.

And if you can't get through the night without the modem connected, you also have a problem you need to address.
posted by pracowity at 3:48 AM on April 5, 2006

When I was a kid (before the internet) and my parents wanted to make sure I was working on my homework, they didn't just watch me from the other room. they sat with me and worked through everything with me. They didn't do my homework, but they were active supervisors. I'd suggest the same here.
posted by JJ86 at 6:17 AM on April 5, 2006

I agree with JJ86 - you need to actively supervise your son's homework time.

We had the same problem with our teenaged daughter last year. She was IMing (and Livejournaling and MySpaceing) incessantly. She got pretty crafty about it, too. My husband is an engineer and looked into blocking those sites - he was successful with everything except IM. In the end, we really didn't want to cut her off (she wasn't doing anything inappropriate, just too much wasted Internet time instead of her homework).

I reworked my work schedule to be there when she got home and sat next to her doing my own work while she did hers. I know that this is not possible for some working parents, but it worked well for us.

Someone told me once that you need to supervise kids more as they get older, not less. I think that's probably true.
posted by Flakypastry at 6:24 AM on April 5, 2006

I have ADD, Asperger's, and Auditory Processing issues. I was 12 when I got involved in dial-up BBSes in the early 90's, at the height of their popularity. (mmm, 2400 baud, 2-line BBSes...) I was an instant addict.

Back in those days, I didn't have the "I need it for homework" excuse. I was permitted one hour per day online. If I went over that time, it would be subtracted from the next day. Time was kept via a kitchen egg timer over the computer. I still remember the week that I got up at 2 am and logged on to play tradewars 2002 and mom heard me moving around. I lost all computer use for 2 weeks.

Let it be known that he will get around any blocks or controls that you put on -- except for you sitting there next to him. I know that my parents, who are not technological slouches by any means, were completely unable to stop me. They went so far to set boot passwords and delete my modem programs. I got around them. Or if I couldn't get around them, I did other things to waste time with the computer.

Yes, you need to make sure that he's got the self-control to do well away at college. But first you need to teach him that self control. Forcing him to have good computer time habits now will pay off in the future. Allowing him his freedom will not work. If he's not getting his homework done, something needs to change NOW.

Technology toys like cell phones, etc -- while it seems like they're necessary these days, they're not. They're priviledges. Priviledges can be taken away, and when kids are not doing what they need to do - NEED to be taken away. You can do the research for him with him sitting next to you too, which enforces things. You can't keep him from using the computer at school, though... that's a challenge my parents didn't have. :-P

You might read some books on disciplining kids with ADD in ways that help foster self-discipline. I know my parents read a few and they helped.
posted by SpecialK at 6:31 AM on April 5, 2006

As someone married to an adult with ADD who has had to structure his worktime in a very specific way (but is very efficient within that framework), you need to work with your son to teach himself how to handle this.

It will suck at first if he doesn't care. But you need to ask him to help troubleshoot the problem - some working adults with ADD do actually run parental control software on themselves to prevent distractions, or have bare-bones profiles for worktime, or turn off their internet access or use timers, etc. For a kid with ADD, learning how to work is as important as learning to manage his own hygiene. Obviously, you need to be right in there to help him, but I think he needs to be providing some input on what will best allow him to focus.

That's not to say that a good start isn't uninstalling IM and MUD clients for X days/weeks/months to break the habit and establish that work comes before play. If he reinstalls them or otherwise "gets around" the restrictions, take the modem. You can plug it in and sit next to him when he needs to use the internet.

I don't think a time-restricted firewall type device is a terrible idea, either, if you can find one that works like you want. You work with him to decide when and how long he's allowed playtime (and how those restrictions might change over time if he shows responsibility), and the device is there to implement the plan he's helped devise. Again, it's a skill he's going to need, so if training wheels will help that can't be all bad.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:51 AM on April 5, 2006

If a kid's attention is wandering, it doesn't matter so much what the content is: he can probably find a way to distract himself with Notepad if he really isn't focusing on the homework.

How about sitting down with him at a set time each evening and helping him to devise a plan for that night's homework. Scan each assignment, and have him estimate how long the work will take to complete. Encourage him to prioritize his tasks and even schedule blocks of time for each assigment. Group together work that requires the internet into one block and non-internet stuff into another.

To begin with, you can even have him check in with you after each task, have him tick it off his "to do" list, and then move on. Depending on how much time has to be committed to homework, you can make an agreement with him how much IM/leisure internet he can have per task completed.

And you might give him the Time article on multitasking to read. A lot of kids uncritically buy into the notion that everyone is supposed to be doing nine things simultaneously and are even a little ashamed to admit that they work better with fewer distractions.

A broader point here is that people are not tempted to multitask if they engaged in a flow-producing activity. You might work with your son to enhance flow in his homework (e.g., if he is bored because of lack of challenge in the work, have him race against time to complete the assignment with a minimum of errors. The reward for successful completion within the time limit would be -- naturally -- internet access for leisure activities.)
posted by La Cieca at 7:46 AM on April 5, 2006

ok... the big problem I had was I never honest about my amount of MUD/IMing. so it might be worth trying to talk to him a little bit about the MUDs, what he likes about them, and who he talks to on IM. then ask him what he wants to accomplish, how long it will take, (say to get 1000 points) and set up goals for the MUD, after which he has to stop. (note: my parents never tried this, so it might not work). though I got my homework done & good grades, I was seriously sleep deprived through most of middle/highschool -- something to watch for. (I had teachers ask me if i worked a second job.)
posted by ejaned8 at 8:36 AM on April 5, 2006

What pracowity said.

I'm a hardcore taskmaster when it comes to my kids - particularly in the areas of outright defiance. You have an obvious currency with him, so if you say "do your homework and THEN you can play your games", and you walk out of the room and come back and he's playing games again, then you may have to do something uncomfortable for everyone. Walk outside and disconnect the shit from your house. If he plugs it back in or buys his own modem then you call your internet provider and have them disconnect service.

Then take him to the library to do his homework.

Parenting isn't always fun. Sometimes we have to piss our kids off, or even *gasp* stifle their creativity a bit in the interest of teaching them not to grow up to be jerks, which is, in essence, the task at hand here.
posted by glenwood at 11:23 AM on April 5, 2006

Oh and in advance, I apologize for not actually addressing the issue regarding technology that you were apparently seeking. That was kinda shitty. Of most of us.
posted by glenwood at 11:26 AM on April 5, 2006

When my dad got angry with me for farting around on the internet too much, he took away the keyboard and mouse. I tried and tried but never did find them. I suspect he took them with him out of the house, into his car and maybe even to work.

I had to do my homework at the library. I thought he was the most evil person ever and I was SOOO angry with him and we had huge fights about it. But you know what? It worked. I wasn't on the computer, and I got my homework done - with books & pen & paper.

posted by raedyn at 12:24 PM on April 5, 2006

As a teenager, I thought it was awful. Looking back on it now, as a parent it was brilliantly simple.
posted by raedyn at 12:25 PM on April 5, 2006

I was going to say something similar to raedyn's comment. Obviously much of this is subject to the convience of your schedule, but the convenience of having the computer/net in your home is what's causing this problem.

Your son has access to plenty of other facilities with the internet, at school or the library, or else the school couldn't assign him homework that required it. So take the modem/keyboard/hard drive away (preferably one of the parts he can't replace for $15 dollars) and say, sorry honey, you were irresponsible with your conveniences- since the internet is in our home to make your school work convenient- and now you have lost your priviledge. Tell him that when he can bring home some good grades without access to that convenience, you will restore his priviledge of access. One way this could work well is if you could give him rides home after school, after he was done with his work. Otherwise, I'm sure his high school offers a late bus (where he can get in even more school reading/leisure reading).

Funny aside: A kid in my WoW guild almost got banned by his parents for playing too much, to the detriment of his school work. They worked out a deal wherein he has to do community service every week or they cancel his account.
posted by baphomet at 12:37 PM on April 5, 2006

I've found it's easier to not start messing around on the internet than it is to stop. Force your son to be absolutely finished with everything he can do without a computer before he can even go near it. That way, at least if he gets distracted, the only homework he isn't done with is the homework requiring the internet. I've considered getting a typewriter for this very purpose.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:26 PM on April 5, 2006

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