A balanced look at anti-tech parenting
When the TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp announced that she had “smashed” her kids’ iPads after they broke screen time rules, it was the peak of a summer of stories that had seen children and teenagers’ uses of tech scrutinised beyond comparison. Headlines included the story of the 9-year-old girl who was so addicted to Fortnite she wet herself to continue playing and had to be sent to a clinic for treatment. Another was the Children’s Commissioner calling for features on social media, such as Snapchat streaks, to be dropped because they were inciting children to become addicted to their devices, as reported by the BBC. With all the shock headlines and calls to action, it can be hard to see where the truth lies – are the kids of today really totally hooked on their phones, tablets, and other devices? Or are these stories just a case of sensationalism at play, a failure of the older generation to appreciate the way modern tech has allowed new recreation for the next generation?
One thing these stories certainly do not get wrong is that kids are using these forms of tech an awful lot more than the generation that came before. For example, an Oxford University study revealed that the use of video games and computers amongst children increased by 40 minutes per day from 2000 to 2015. Of course, there are obvious logical explanations for this – tablets and smartphones are a lot more common and cheaper than they were for millennials growing up a decade or so ago. The study revealed something very interesting, however: kids are multi-tasking by combining their use of technology with other activities. Killian Mullan of Oxford states that “children have embedded tech in their daily activities – just like we have”.
These findings bring a different dynamic to the original debate, questioning the idea that the kids of today are much different to us, or generations gone-by when it comes to how they use tech. In reality, previous generations took to technology just as well as the kids of today have. The invention of broadcast television allowed those growing up in the latter part of the 20th century to sit on the couch for hours and hours, lapping up whatever appeared on their screen – and don’t even ask what happened once they got more than “three channels” (my dad is watching endless repeats of Bullseye on Challenge to this day). What about the parents of today who grew up playing on their Mega Drive or PlayStation all night, or the 20-somethings who harbour nostalgia for the days of MSN Messenger and updating their Bebo page? Sometimes it can be hard to accept the fact that just like our kids, we spent our days growing up in front of screens too – we just never realised it.
As time moves forward and generations renew, society changes and so do its habits. The hobbies and recreation of old move-out and are replaced by new ones; it is this fact that individuals like Kirstie Allsopp often forget about. In her Daily Mail defence of smashing her kids’ iPads, Allsopp states she wants to her kids to “experience risk” rather than playing on their tablets and that they have “access to motorbikes, all sorts of knives, old swords, axes and tools”. It seems in the rush to condemn the ills of modern tech, there is a desire for regression to the days of old – a world without all this tech, the halcyon days of going out and experimenting with the dangers of the world and seeing what happens. Except those days no longer exist, if they ever actually did in the first place.
Despite all these flaws in the recent media debates on this issue, there is a valid point hidden amongst the mess. Kids do need to be balanced and reasonable in their use of tech. A recent study from Canadian institutes, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, found that limiting children’s screen time to less than two hours a day recreationally was linked with improved cognitive ability. Sure, looking at Instagram stories and beating all your pals on FIFA might be a fun way to use a few hours, but if these activities start replacing important forms of brain development like reading and writing, then they become a danger. And we must also acknowledge that the scare stories about addiction can and do happen – even those people considered “healthy and balanced” can slip into a world consumed by tech without really realising it, disconnecting themselves from everything and everyone around them.
The tech we use is here to stay for our kids and the generations after them. So instead of creating a panic, let’s create an open dialogue where we understand their new world and learn how we can make the best use out of it – that’s the least we owe them.