10 February 2018 • 9:00am
Today marks the start of the February half-term “holiday” for most parents, and once upon a time that holiday consisted of opening the back door and pushing older kids out of it to roam their local surroundings.
But now all the world is contained in a screen. From Snapchat to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, games consoles and television, the lure of the phone, iPad and laptop is so potent that it has become a daily struggle for parents to get their kids to engage with anything beyond a selfie, snap or group chat.
Even when friends come round it’s common to find them lined up on the sofa staring at individual screens.
It’s such a headache that some parents turn a blind eye to teenagers lurking in their bedrooms, faces lit up blue. Screen time equals peace and quiet time for beleaguered mum and dad – and maybe even a moment to have a sneaky surf through social media themselves, or answer a work email.
Others deliberately seek out Wi-Fi free holidays to end the battles.
One friend told me that every half-term her family rents a cottage in Exmoor with an open fire and they all go for long walks with the dog; “It’s bliss as Exmoor has no Wi-Fi!” she said. Another recalled the time when the Wi-Fi broke in their holiday home. “The kids ended up playing Monopoly, cards and darts. We did quizzes. I think they may have even have had the odd conversation.”
Advice for parents | How to protect your children from screen overuse
• Don’t use a digital babysitter. Babies and toddlers need a real caregiver, not a screen companion, to cuddle and talk with. There is no substitute for a real human being.
• Wait until your baby is two or three years old before they get screen time. And make a conscious decision about screen rules for them.
• Monitor your own screen time. Whether or not your children are watching, be aware of how much your television or computer is on at home – and how often you check your mobile phone in front of them.
• Ask your children about their real world day, but don’t forget to ask them about what’s happening in their cyber life.
• Don’t snoop or spy – studies show that children with overbearing parents just learn to be more secretive, and won’t turn to them when they run into trouble. In other words, be vigilant but not a vigilante.
• If you find inappropriate content, resist the urge to shut down or confiscate their device. You are depriving them of their entire support system. They need to reach out to friends. Let them.
• Finally, if anything goes wrong in their cyber life, tell them not to try to handle it on their own. That’s what parents are for.
Yet if the Wi-Fi is working (and, let’s be honest, there are few places where it isn’t), there are ways to restore tech balance that don’t involve an unrealistic total ban. Increasingly parents are realising that limiting tech is a good idea as the negatives of phone use continue to stack up: from neck strain to weight gain to a decline in empathy, concentration and conversation skills learned from time spent actually face-to-face with others.
Anya Kamenetz is the digital education correspondent for National Public Radio in America, and her new book, The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, is published this month. “What you want to avoid is kids getting into the zombie zone, mindlessly consuming show after show and game after game so that when you turn it off you get this explosive reaction because they’ve been overstimulated.”
Instead Kamenetz recommends finding creative ways to use technology together. “Try to bring screens back into the shared space. Let’s say you watch a video together and learn the dance routine in the video and practise it together, the screen becomes part of the game.
“Or you’re going to bake cookies, so you find some tutorials on YouTube, you make the cookies together, and then you might even upload a video of yourselves making them. Maybe you’re going on a trip and you research a great video to watch that you will all talk about after. The goal is to hijack the fascination with the screen to explore an interest or activity together.”
Kamenetz feels parents are suffering from a lot of free floating, but sometimes misplaced anxiety around their children and the world of tech. “If your kid is in their bedroom on Snapchat, what is that really doing? Is it interfering with their sleep, or are their real world relationships not as strong?
“These are big issues, but the vast majority of kids are probably doing just fine. Social media doesn’t necessarily have to derail their lives. Be careful, talk to them and observe them.”
Negotiating the new world of screens then is about finding sensible limits, and making sure it doesn’t take over our lives. Build in some sacred screen-free moments, like at the dinner table or when you’re driving.
Many of the most important conversations I’ve had with my children have been behind the wheel of the car. Or find some shared family activities.
I was surprised by how many of my friends cited family board games night as a way to have fun together. Says Claudia Courtis: “We play board games that are actually quite fun even for parents. I can recommend: Forbidden Island, Exploding Kittens, Code Names, Pass the Bomb, Qwirkle, Star Wars Labyrinth, Rummikub and Ticket to Ride. It boils down to giving the kids attention, offering to do something with them, being available, which is all quite hard to do when you’re keeping an eye on work emails at the same time.”
Unfortunately as parents we are also caught up in a muddle of work and social media on our phones ourselves – even when on holiday – and it’s tempting to use the kids screens as a babysitter. Rachel Vecht, a former teacher, mother of four and founder of Educating Matters, which provides seminars and courses in parenting skills, says what’s important here is modelling.
“Eighty percent of parenting is modelling. If you’ve said no screens at the table that includes your quick email to work, as whatever your child is doing is as important to them as our agenda is to us. We have to acknowledge that, and it helps children feel we understand them.”
Vecht believes in writing a screen contract in advance of the school holidays with incentives that everyone in the family has agreed to stick to. It’s enough to send your average adult phone addict into a panic.
“This half-term we are not going anywhere and lots of my kids friends are away, so I will sit down with them and explain that I understand they will want to be on their screens some of the time, but that we need to allocate times and brainstorm what else we are going to do, and come up with some ideas based on their passions. It’s about setting it up in advance, so that it’s all agreed. If you’re working during half-term then sit down with whoever is looking after your children too and make sure they understand the contract.”
Which is not to say that it is entirely the responsibility of parents to entertain their children. We seem to have created a world where children are so scheduled with extra curricular activities that they have lost the ability to potter happily about at home without the television or phone, and find amusement on their own.
One of the aims of organisation The Wild Network is to bring back this sense of free natural play and encourage children to spend more time outdoors in nature. When they surveyed parents to discover what barriers stood in the way of their children going outside, screen time was the number one issue they cited.
At a glance | Screen-time rules around the world
•UK guidelines, set out by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), recommend no more than two hours’ leisure screen time per day for children of any age.
•In the US, it is recommended that under-twos should have no screen time at all. Thereafter, the maximum amount of leisure screen time should be two hours per day.
•In France, it is illegal to market TV shows specifically at under-threes.
•In Taiwan, parents are legally obliged to monitor children’s screen time. They are fined £1,000 if they are found to be letting an under-18 have a screen for hours at a time.
Says Mark Sears, chief wild officer: “The evidence is really strong now that time in nature and outdoors supports children’s well-being in lots of different ways, and not only because it encourages them to be active. It also gives them tools to survive in the 21st-century like resilience, being resourceful, communication skills. This is not a historic sense of how we want children to be. Those softer skills support the whole child to thrive in the modern world.”
Yet rather than try to ban the technology standing in the way, The Wild Network has used it to effect change by building an app, The Wild Explorer, with fun ideas for outdoors activities ranging from 20 minutes, to day-long expeditions, organised by age.
“We’re using our apps to give parents little hacks and ideas for outdoor time. In the February half-term it’s cold, so this is not necessarily the moment for big expeditions. Start with a short bike ride or bird spotting in your local area. Even in our cities you can find something wild.”
And wherever you are, whether it’s the mountains of a ski resort or your local park, pause and take a moment to enjoy it, before you feel the need to document it with a photo or post.
As Dr Linda Papadopoulos, a psychologist, says: “If you see a mountain climb it first, then photograph it. It’s about finding balance.” Ultimately the world of tech is in its adolescence, and in a sense we are all stumbling through its maze, trying to find a path through it.
Kamenetz likens the digital revolution to the car industry in its infancy. “When people first got cars they didn’t have speed limits, and stop signs and seat belts. Gradually people learned, but it took a decade to make cars safer and we’re at the very beginning of that transformation.”
We’re not there yet, but screens are not cigarettes; we don’t need a total ban, just to set some limits and boundaries. Still roaming, but in a smarter way.