Where do we draw the line when it comes to childrens’ screen time? - Jayne Dowle

Is there a sadder sight this summer than a toddler with an iPad or fancy mobile phone propped up on their pushchair? I was at the seaside recently and couldn’t believe the number of parents who presumably think it’s acceptable to hook an under-five into technology, when all around are things to see and observe.

What is the point of taking a child all the way to the coast for them to not even notice the sea, the beach, the seagulls, the sounds and smells and general experience of being away from the familiarity of home?

It reminded me of a fairly good-natured argument I once had with another parent when they were bragging about the seat-back DVD players in their new motor.

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“The kids travel so well now we’ve got those,” this parent said. “We don’t hear a peep out of them for hours.”

'Campaigners calling for less screen time for the very young believe that a focus on phones is preventing healthy development of the brain'.'Campaigners calling for less screen time for the very young believe that a focus on phones is preventing healthy development of the brain'.
'Campaigners calling for less screen time for the very young believe that a focus on phones is preventing healthy development of the brain'.

How sad, I said, that the only way to get through a journey with your own offspring is to give them something to shut them up. Some of my fondest parenting memories are the long car trips to visit relatives down South, when – eschewing ‘I Spy’ for being essentially pointless – we would play the ‘alphabet’ game, coming up with animals, countries, foods from A to Z, the number plate game, making up phrases from letters and numerals, and singing daft songs.

I’ll admit however, when my own son and daughter were small, I was always an advocate of technology. When other parents were turning up their noses at the first generation of iPads, we bought one each for our kids, and showed them how to make simple films. Many a summer’s day was spent in the garden creating mini-blockbusters with their friends. And if a child was ill, or it was raining, we didn’t have strict rules about playing games online, or watching movies.

I felt – and I still do – that it’s a parental responsibility to teach children how to use technology. However, it is also a parental responsibility to teach them how to regulate their use. How are the very youngest going to learn how to do this if their very first sights are focused on a screen?

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About a fifth of three to four-year-olds in the UK have their own phone — that’s about 300,000 very young children - according to Ofcom.

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, describes what is happening as a “transition from a play-based childhood…essential for overcoming fear and fragility, to a phone-based childhood which blocks normal human development by taking time away from sleep, play and in-person socialising, as well as causing addiction and drowning kids in social comparisons they can’t win.”

Haidt and other campaigners calling for less screen time for the very young believe that such focus on phones is preventing healthy development of the brain, leading to difficulties with facing ordinary stress and pressure as children work their way towards adulthood.

It is no coincidence, they argue, that the massive increase in smartphone use in recent years has been accompanied by a rise in cases of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, in ever-younger children.

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It has also led to a tragic decline in reading books; this is a fact I know first-hand, as neither of my two turn naturally to literature, either fiction or nonfiction, despite enjoying bedtime stories every night until they were five or six. In a house full of my own books, collected since childhood, this strikes me as a tragedy, and I do admit some guilt.

There are already public campaigns, such as #SafeScreens, organised by UsForThem, a UK-based voluntary organisation set up to provide advocacy for children during the pandemic. They’re calling for a tobacco-style regulatory framework for smartphones that places a duty on manufacturers, suppliers and content providers to prove the safety of their products and services in the hands of children.

As a parent, would I go that far? I think it is important to have regulations, but these do demand that first and foremost, parents support them. Judging by what I’ve seen recently, too many would simply ride roughshod over any manufacturers’ safeguards.

It’s a tricky one, and to go too far risks creating an unenviable ‘nanny state’, where private leisure time is policed from above. I don’t know if anyone wants that, but I also know that growing up on social media and measuring your worth by the number of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ from friends and strangers alike is no good for anyone’s self-esteem.

Parents need to take responsibility too. If they are never without their phone in their hand, what kind of example does this set to their children?