PICTURE the scene. A typical family on holiday. Are they gathered around the café table talking and laughing, reading newspapers or perhaps even playing a game together? No. They are sitting in silence with their heads bowed in silent worship of the mobile phone.
We’ve all seen them. And, to our shame, perhaps we are one ourselves. Let’s be honest. Parents are as much to blame as children for turning to technology instead of actually talking to their nearest and dearest.
A new report lays the blame for the rising number of young people suffering from mental health problems squarely at the feet of adults. The Legatum Institute, a charitable foundation which campaigns to improve life chances and reduce poverty, says that parents should put down their smartphones and tablets and spend more face-to-face time with their teenage children.
Now, I have one teenage child, my son Jack, who is almost 16 and one pre-teen, his sister Lizzie, who is 12. Therefore, I certainly know what I am talking about. There are some days when none of us even want to look at each other, but that’s pretty standard family behaviour as far as I can see.
However, if we do get the chance to spend time together relaxing and hanging out, it’s so nice just to sit and chat and watch the world go by. People-watching is free and you can do it anywhere, as I tell my two all the time. And what’s the point of spending a load of money on a family holiday to an interesting place if no-one actually takes any notice of their surroundings?
On my own Facebook feed last summer, there was a campaign to “out” the most shameless teenage behaviour in this respect. Friends posted snaps of their offspring in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canyon and all manner of wonders of the world, face down on Minecraft or WhatsApp, entirely oblivious to their location.
However, parents are just as bad. I’m sure it’s fascinating to follow every virtual twist and turn of what Julie from Accounts is up to with Derek from Marketing on Facebook, but is it really that important when you’re spending your hard-earned cash on precious time away from work?
What happens on holiday should be reinforced at home. I’m no draconian mother, but I have made a rule that none of us is allowed to eat a family meal with a smartphone propped up beside us. And that does include the adults. No matter how urgent the email that’s expected any minute, no matter how fascinating the Twitter argument that’s going on, we all put our phones face down on the table.
I don’t profess any higher moral purpose to this stance. It’s just that being distracted when eating in company is downright rude. I don’t particularly care what my two do when they are with their friends. However, I do care that they grow up with good manners and know how to carry themselves well in any social situation.
Over-use of technology is what’s known as “digital immersion” and it reduces the time young people spend learning from adults and gaining the skills of social connection.
In my experience, it also creates barriers between individuals. Teenagers can be stroppy and self-obsessed enough without phones and technology involved. If you allow them to build their own little world and shut off everyone around them, they will.
It’s up to you, as a parent, to drag them out of it. When Jack has been on the video game Fortnite for hours at a stretch, I find an excuse to persuade him out of his bedroom. Often it’s to help me with some really quite spurious errand, but time just chatting in the garden or the car keeps our relationship alive, literally. It also lets him know that although his own space is important, communication is key to wellbeing.
As the Legatum Institute finds, over-use of social media can cause serious health problems. Researchers link the rise in anxiety, self-harm and other mental illnesses with high social media use among young people.
It urges Britain to emulate Iceland, which in the mid-1990s experienced some of Europe’s highest levels of adolescent drinking and other substance abuse. Iceland encouraged teenagers to spend more time at home with their parents and supplemented local activities such as sports clubs to provide other adult role models and reduce pressure to drink or use drugs. The results were quite impressive, but Iceland is a small country and the supporting research is pretty old by now.
Over here, I think we might be waiting a long while to see a sports club in every community, especially given the lack of public funding for such initiatives. So it’s over to us, us parents, to set some boundaries – and instil a good example by our own behaviour and the boundaries we set ourselves.