Grant Woodward: Screens that are disconnecting us from family life

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I AGREE with Reg Bailey. The role of Government “childhood tsar” is probably as flimsy and tokenistic as it sounds. But at least its newly-minted incumbent is sticking his head above the top of his iPad and telling parents to end this obsession with smartphones and the myriad other gizmos that are embedding themselves in our homes.

Walking to school with your mum once meant chatting about the day ahead, why you couldn’t get your head around fractions and your chances of having chips for tea. Mundane, everyday stuff maybe, but the glue that binds families together.

Nowadays, and we’ve all seen them, youngsters are lucky to get a couple of belligerent grunts from their mother, or father, because they’re too busy immersing themselves in something far more important – a retweet of that funny video they saw the other night perhaps, or maybe a check of a workmate’s latest Facebook status.

The middle classes are as guilty as anyone. After all, unlike many they have the sort of disposable income you need to be able to spare £600 for a couple of iPads.

We were visited by some friends the other weekend. Lovely people, but at times it was hard to enter into a conversation with them because their iPad was being whipped out at every available opportunity to surf the net, play old pop videos or show us pictures of their other friends on Facebook.

Their daughter, meanwhile, used it to play online games or watch episodes of Peppa Pig at the breakfast table.

Another friend, who I hadn’t seen for a while, kept holding up a tortuously slow round of golf because of his habit of logging on to Facebook every five minutes. You might have thought catching up with old friends, the ones he was physically with rather than those tapping random, banal musings from somewhere in the ether, would have been a bigger priority. Clearly not.

Reg Bailey, like me, is a bit worried about this sort of thing. Especially when it comes to the effect that it is having on our children. The other day he told Britain’s parents they were spending far too much time with their heads stuck in their LCD screens and not enough interacting with their offspring.

He warned they were letting “screens take over” and suggested instituting screen-free mealtimes. His words were backed by Suzie Hayman, from the charity Parentline Plus, who said families were getting worse at talking to one another and that the proliferation of smartphones was partly to blame.

And there are solid grounds for concern. An experiment by scientists at the University of California suggested a heavy use of screens from a young age may be impairing social skills.

Meanwhile, the rising incidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in the US is leading experts to link it with the skyrocketing use of mobile devices. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children, on average, spend nearly seven and a half hours each day staring at those tiny displays, up 20 per cent from just five years ago.

But surely we don’t need scientific studies to tell us all this? It’s patently obvious that a failure to engage with our children is going to screw them up. After all, how are they meant to form healthy relationships with others if we can’t even be bothered to form one with them?

The latest craze in the form of the rash of ice bucket challenge videos currently littering the internet has revealed something else, too. Many youngsters, still some distance from their teens, boast their own Facebook pages.

The internet is now a big part of our everyday lives. But is it really wise, or necessary, to expose our children to the vagaries of social media while they’re still trying to get a handle on basic things such as feelings and finding their place in the world? Why are we willingly offering our children as sacrificial lambs to this frequently narcissistic, nasty and downright odd environment?

Walking into Mothercare the other day, a tannoy announcement informed me that “children’s tablets are now half price”. These aren’t pills, of course, but shrunk-down iPad equivalents for the under-fives. You couldn’t make it up.

For all that the internet has brought us closer together in a global sense, there’s no little irony in the fact that it has left us increasingly disconnected from those closest to us, marooned on electronic islands separate from our own flesh and blood.

The amount of time that parents spend with children in the UK is among the lowest in Europe, and the spread of these devices is only going to exacerbate the problem.

Lately, I’ve been having a vision of what the future will look like. A mother, father and two children sit at the dinner table. And not a sound can be heard, save for the occasional tap and swipe of screens.