Andrew Vine: Why the young need to learn that real life is infinitely richer and more rewarding than anything on screen

What can be done to stop young children becoming addicted to computer games?What can be done to stop young children becoming addicted to computer games?
What can be done to stop young children becoming addicted to computer games?
IT’S a sobering experience to be bested at anything by a four-year-old child, but he had me beaten all ends up on his computer game.

The scaly dragon pursuing my character along a wall had me pinned down within seconds, however many times I restarted. Not so my friends’ son, laughing delightedly as he skipped out of the monster’s reach and racked up points for doing so at a dizzying rate.

All good fun, except that the tablet on which we were playing claims him for hour upon hour.

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When I suggested getting out of the house for some fresh air and exercise instead, a walk to the park to feed the ducks and then a kick-about with a football, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

How can the screen time of children be reduced?How can the screen time of children be reduced?
How can the screen time of children be reduced?

His parents are becoming concerned about the time he spends playing games on the tablet, a present from one of his relatives.

And not just that. He’s a bright kid, and sometimes startles them with the accuracy of his impersonations of people he’s seen on YouTube clips. Too much of his focus is on what’s being fed to him through a screen. They’ve started to wean him off it, but it’s a measure of how addictive the screen time is that it is coming at the price of tantrums and sulks.

It’s a scenario that is familiar to most parents – judging the right amount to allow their children, and one which will be addressed by MPs today, when the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee considers the impact of immersive and addictive technologies, especially on the young.

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This issue is a growing concern for society. There’s a real risk of children becoming zombified by the amount of time they are spending on screen.

Not only can this turn them into couch potatoes who aren’t active enough, but it is replacing learning about real relationships and how to form friendships with fantasy experiences.

Last week’s advice from the country’s chief medical officers on limiting children’s screen time was careful to stop short of suggesting that it is harmful to them.

Yet it comes to something when official guidance on parenting has to include such basics as ensuring children get enough sleep by preventing them taking tablets or phones into their bedrooms, or insisting family meal times are screen-free.

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The problem is what to do about it. However probing the select committee is, Parliament can no more reach into people’s homes to switch off tablets and smartphones than it can prevent gorging on unhealthy food as part of the campaign against growing levels of obesity.

But horrifying material is able to reach into people’s homes and ensnare the young, as shown by the shocking story of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after seeing distressing material about suicide and depression on her Instagram account.

The tragedy of her death spurred Instagram into pledging to remove all such repellent and dangerous material last week, which is welcome, but much more needs to be done.

The technology giants responsible for social media platforms are still not doing anything like enough to police what is appearing on the feeds that earn vast global profits.

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They continue to sidestep the responsibilities and regulation that publishers are subject to, with the weaselly insistence that they are merely platforms on which others post material.

Not only is that utter rubbish, disingenuous and deceptive, but it is also a rejection of a clear moral responsibility to protect the young, impressionable and possibly vulnerable from harmful images and insidious brainwashing by so-called friends.

Without consciously realising that a way of life has been established, large sections of society are turning to their screens as a primary form of entertainment.

Young parents who have already grown to adulthood with a smartphone glued to their hand are having children who are going a step further, becoming addicted to their screens long before they have sufficient maturity to recognise that at least some of what they are seeing is anything but benign.

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One of the most worrying aspects is that we stand at the beginning of this phenomenon. It’s impossible to know what – if any – the long-term effects of all this screen time will be on the young who are growing up with it central to their lives.

Will they turn into well-adjusted adults, at ease with families, friends or workmates? Or will the immersion in virtual worlds in which a degree of violence – however cartoonish and stylised – appears ever-present warp their outlook and behaviour?

That’s a chance that can’t be taken, even if it means parents coming into conflict with their children by clamping down on it. Ultimately, the young need to learn that real life is infinitely richer and more rewarding than anything on screen.