Are our internet-savvy children spending too much time locked to their mobile devices? Tim Lott bemoans the loss of family time but settles for a common sense approach.
My daughter – now ten years old – used to take a teddy bear with her when she went to bed. It was a cute sight to behold. I would take it from her warm arms in the morning when she woke up. Nowadays, the teddy is long gone. It’s an iPad Mini that I find pressed lovingly against her torso. I take it from her arms in the morning, wondering if I should ever let her have it back again. And I always do.
Don’t think me a soft touch. I have fought a sterling battle against the use of social media in our house, where I live with my wife and two daughters (14 and 10 years old). I have introduced weekend bans. I have confiscated, I have punished, I have railed and I have complained.
To little avail, in the end. My wife seems as addicted as my children. Once we would sit together of an evening and pass the time watching undemanding TV. Or we would play Scrabble. Now she plays Scrabble online with invisible, virtual opponents, in her own room. I listlessly sift among my emails and downloaded articles. So it seems hypocritical to complain.
Bad parenting? Perhaps. It is not hard to find statistics that condemn the trend. 27 per cent of children who browse social media sites like Twitter and Facebook will suffer poor mental health according to the Office of National Statistics last year. A Childline survey earlier this year showed that a large and increasing number of children were experiencing cyber-bullying. They also recorded a resultant spike in the levels of self-harm, deteriorating family relationships and unhappiness. An earlier American study showed that heavy Facebook use leads to increased levels of narcissism among children, along with mania and aggressive behavours.
However, I remember the panics about children watching TV rotting their brains when I was a kid, which turned out to be pretty much baseless.
Also my daughters don’t spend much time on social media sites, but recreational and educational portals like Club Penguin, Mathletics and MovieStar Planet.
I continue to exert a level of ad hoc control, at which point I simply insist that screens in the house be switched off when I feel they have been watched too long (maybe for more than say a few hours at the weekend). I am watchful, but not obsessive.
For I have to recognize that the manner of communicating between people is changing. If I were witnessing in my children a withdrawal of self, any unusual patterns of behaviour or unhappiness, I would think about it much more. But at the moment they seem reasonably OK, and so I am relatively hands off. Interfering can do as much harm as not interfering – I have friends who ban all internet use at the weekends, and their children are furious and unhappy because they cannot communicate with their friends electronically and are cut off from the virtual communities that much modern friendship seems to rely on.
All in all, when it comes to social media, I exercise common sense, try not to worry about it too much, and monitor what they seeing by checking their browsing histories. Other than that, I let them get on with it. I don’t like it much, but unless they’re at it on Facebook say for three or four hours a day, there’s no evidence I can find that it doing much harm. As for my marriage – well, that’s a different matter. But at least we don’t have to argue about who puts the letter tiles away afterwards anymore.