Honest screen-time



Most of us would find it hard to live without our mobile devices, we rely on them for communication, organisation, social media and entertainment. We rely on them to navigate us, advise us and amuse us. At the flick of a screen we can laugh over something silly with a friend the other side of the world, or get into a heated political debate with complete strangers.  We can waste an hour appreciating videos of cats speaking with human voices. Via impressive photographic technology within our devices’ social media apps, we can now style ourselves into our ideal form, creating an online identity that is a forever sunlit ‘insta-brushed’, permanently delighted version of our slightly cross, exhausted real-life selves. As oblivious individual personal-marketing experts, we have learnt to vet, filter and approve photos before they go online. Last Christmas I sat through an entire Primary School Nativity play based around the smart phone. The birth of Jesus got a million ‘likes’ and Joseph and Mary did a selfie for the Three Kings, who brought gifts of phones instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It was both witty and uncomfortable to watch.

Teenagers spend most of their time on smart-phones, the little red ‘like’ symbol popping up to give that tiny ego-boost or ‘hit’ and hook them back into the loop of that beloved cyber-confidence. In an instant an insecure 13-year-old receives approval and that longed-for social reassurance and all he has to do is post a photo of some spaghetti Bolognese online. But those little red likes are little red devils of addiction, we always want more. Babies and dogs have their own Instagram accounts and toddlers can now adeptly navigate a smartphone to find their own fix of preschool games. Walk into any UK home on a weekend and the chances are at some point you’ll see every child (and adult) bent towards a small screen, or manically searching the house for their phone or charger. This is the way things are with today’s family life – well, I admit, it’s the way it is with mine. Is this realistically something to be warring against or to understand, accept and enjoy, in moderation? How do we succeed in finding that moderation, when we and our children have become so reliant on our devices, both practically and in truth, emotionally? And how do I endure my five-year-old talking only about Minecraft for hours on end, without losing the will to live?

Whilst there is growing concern that we are becoming a nation of mobile phone addicts, it is unlikely that we will see a drop in private or commercial use of our devices anytime soon. However, research shows that the general population’s addiction to social media platforms are negatively impacting the very thing they was created and designed to support, namely interaction and communication. For most teenagers, phones are used for comparing homework as well as the obligatory social media communications. In some ways, phones are a blessing for those crippled with shyness; it is much easier to ‘talk’ to a blank screen that an unpredictable human face. In an article published by the New York Times this year, research showed that ‘73% of 13 to 17-year-olds had their own smartphones and 24% of those were online almost constantly.’ Expert advice tells us that two hours is the maximum time children should be on smartphones but the reality is that some are staring at screens for up to eight hours a day. Although as yet unproved as a cause, research says the rise in anxiety-based disorders and depression amongst teens occurred in direct correlation with the rise in children’s access to smartphones.

Perhaps you (like me) are occasionally ‘guilty’ of letting your children gaze fixedly for hours at inane block characters lobbing things at each other, or you turn a blind eye and let them curl over their screens, entranced and entrapped in their virtual identity, robbing and rampaging over a cartoon-dystopian landscape, just so you can get on with some domestic chores, emails, or have an uninterrupted conversation with another adult?

If this began as a first-world problem, however trivial it may have seemed, smart-phones and devices dictate a great deal of the social influences and boundaries that govern the next generation, and the next. The problem seems to lie (in part) with the fact we don’t make much time for one another anymore. How do we make a walk in the woods more appealing that jumping out of a virtual helicopter and fighting with wings and weapons? Has our desire to protect our children from the real world (since the 1970s children play outside half as much as their parents) created a virtual hell in which we cannot get them out and they can’t escape? The sensationalism and terror created in the media has forced us to turn from the outside to inside. If our children can’t play outside for our fear of them being kidnapped, then they will be safe at home on the sofa, never mind if they are plotting, bombing and thieving in an online game! 

We all require incentive to relinquish our addictions, and as attention spans are shorter now than ever, indeed researchers say our attention span now is less than that of a goldfish. However, it is argued that this lack of attention is ‘task dependent’ or based on whatever task is at hand rather than a general decline in our attention. (More or Less, BBC).

But perhaps the question is what makes it worthwhile, what is the price we offer, the bargaining chip, for our gaming obsessed and instantly stimulated thrill-seeking children, to look up and say those magical words ‘okay, yes mum, I’ll come for that walk,’ because in my house, getting cross doesn’t work. If I can get both my children out together then inevitably and ironically it’s worth posting a photo on social media, as after all, it looks like they’re having fun…

by Lily Law