Digital families

Digital families

The impact of childhood gadget use is a hot topic and often in the press.

Anecdotally, I am hearing a lot of parents’ stories about the negative impact they feel digital technology is having on their children’s emotions, self-esteem and psychological well-being. 

Simultaneously, parents are aware that their children not having a smartphone can be alienating for them at school and amongst their peer groups.

And it’s not just about ‘screen time’. It’s about their overall mobile phone reliance and behaviour.

Jonathan Haidt has just launched his new book, ‘The Anxious Generation‘, which is bound to be a fascinating read/listen, and is accompanied by a few interesting articles that summarise and discuss some of these issues.

An article in The Atlantic, by Jonathan Haidt himself, is available to read in The Atlantic and is calling for the immediate ending of phone-based childhood. The subtitle ‘The environment in which kids grow up today is hostile to human development’, provides interesting statistics and insights which are a prelude to the reading of his book.

A New Statesman article talks about, how there seems to be an increasing level of parental fear of physical danger in the real world (which has dropped steeply since the 1990s) and supply their school-going child with a smartphone ‘for physical safety reasons’. Simultaneously, parents underestimate the danger of releasing their children into the online world. Children also seem to be shifting from a state of high play time to high screen time, with teenage years being almost ubiquitously spent online.

The most impactful quote from this article is another argument for the need to restrict the use of phones in schools: “The value of phone-free and even screen-free education,” Haidt concludes, “can be seen in the choices that many tech executives make about the schools they send their children to, such as the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where all digital devices – phones, laptops, tablets – are prohibited.” 

A Guardian article reviewing the book adds a bit of further insight: “Smartphones pull us away from our immediate surroundings and the people closest to us, rendering us, as the sociologist Sherry Turkle puts it, “forever elsewhere””. This may be one of the most insightful observations of our technology use and how it impacts our real-world social connections. 

In his book ‘Lost Connections‘, Johann Hari talks about how our loss of social connections was already on the rise before smartphones became ubiquitous. Social media seemed to promise a re-connection with that lost community that gave us meaning and purpose but instead delivered only empty connections. 

I hear a lot of conversations around the most appropriate amount of screentime is appropriate for various ages of children, without considering the social and behavioural reasons why children seek to spend more time on their gadgets. we often forget that children learn through observation of others’ behaviour much more than what they are told to do. Social and group conformity is engrained in our ability to survive as humans. 

Before around 8-9 years old, children’s primary focus is on their role in the family. In this capacity, they observe and copy the behaviour of those older than them. Take the example of a young child pushing their doll/toy around in a pram. They are practising future adult behaviour. If they are observing their parents and older siblings staring at a shiny screen, it is not surprising that they interpret this behaviour as ‘how to adult’ and would desire to copy and mimic this behaviour in their own lives as soon as possible. Reducing the amount of time they have on the device may make it even more appealing and desirable. 

So, the question remains for me: how are we, as adults, demonstrating responsible gadget use to the younger generations? The adage ‘do as I say, not as I do’ seems hypocritical at best.

Without wishing to judge anyone, because we are all different – instead of lamenting the analogue youth, we may have enjoyed pre-Y2K, maybe we all need to carve out more in-person time to relive the values of that childhood with our children – with no digital devices insight.

Most advice around reducing the amount of time spent on digital tech involves increasing the number of activities and interests outside of the digital world.

So, my advice to parents would be summarised by a quote from point 8. of The Atlantic article, “If parents don’t replace screen time with real-world experiences involving friends and independent activity, then banning devices will feel like deprivation, not the opening up of a world of opportunities. The main reason why the phone-based childhood is so harmful is because it pushes aside everything else. Smartphones are experience blockers. Our ultimate goal should not be to remove screens entirely, nor should it be to return childhood to exactly the way it was in 1960. Rather, it should be to create a version of childhood and adolescence that keeps young people anchored in the real world while flourishing in the digital age”.

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