Stephen Carrick-Davies's son suggested a non-screen day every week. The family jumped at the chance to spend more time connected to one another. But can they keep it up in the new year?
Dad, I've had a really good idea." Delivered rather cagily to me and my partner Fiona over breakfast a few months ago, our son Finn's announcement offered few clues that it might herald something altogether more profound.
Ten-year-old boys have a lot of "really good ideas", few of which would bear scrutiny in Dragon's Den. I braced myself – what would it be this time? A request to search for a new app that would help him tidy his room?
What Finn said next was significant and surprising enough to give pause to my cereal spoon in mid-air. "I think we should have one day a week where no one looks at a screen," he said, his confidence rising in time with our loosening jaws. "I think it would make us more imaginative as a family."
Silence. This was, after all from the child who was most the "imaginative" in trying to invent reasons to go online. Too young for Facebook's "boast-by-post" culture, but too old for Club Penguin, our "just five minutes more" child loves anything with an interactive screen. But at a single stroke, he had also shown that there may be more subtle ways than we parents imagine of bridging the supposed digital divide.
A few weeks earlier, we had been chatting as a family about our tech-life balance and seeing if we could have some non-screen time (NST) – albeit in units of hours rather than days. No screens before school, all mobiles on the landing at night, no calls at meal-times-type agreements. It was working – but could it work better?
The discussion had started when I read something David Bowie had said in 1972. "We have created a child who will be so exposed to the media that he will be lost to his parents by the time he is 12." If he was right, we had just two years with Finn before the "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes!"
Like many parents who have embraced technology with both hands and love being an early adopter, I feel a growing unease that we may be losing grip of our offspring at a much younger age, in part because of the changes that our own tech-enthusiasm has brought about in the home.
What is relayed through these devices has changed dramatically in the last few years. Screens now lead us through a maze of private social footpaths that weave and crisscross the whole of life, but on which children largely travel alone. Children no longer consume this space, they inhabit it. To them "no place like home" means ensuring you have a wi-fi connection on the beach.
It's little wonder. According to Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman, there are only two states for children these days. "They are either asleep or online … even if they wake up in the middle of the night they go online," he told delegates at a conference recently.
When our kids were younger, we were more attuned to their screen-life balance and more conscious of their early development and influences. Back in 2001, when our eldest was four, I remember being struck by an authoritative survey from the American Academy of Paediatrics, which recommended that children under the age of two have no screen time at all, and that pre-schoolers watch no more than one to two hours a day of "quality programming". As someone who used to look after the children one day a week while juggling a tidal wave of emails and running a charity, I failed miserably on this score. CBeebies saved my career.
Ten years on, am I still failing? Now that my children are starting their teen years, is Schmidt's interpretation correct? Will we, the parents, be the lucky ones if we have two hours of non-screen time a day? If we don't like what we see growing in the corridors of this new home, should our response be to implement some non-screen time at least once a week as Finlay suggested?
Of course, parents have always found challenging the separation of teenagers deriving their identity from influences outside the family home, but through technology this separation now appears to be happening at an earlier age. It's also more pronounced – they have a parallel but different place called "home" within the home. It's as if the computer is a family member.
So how do we parent in this new terrain and embrace the positives, but also keep the balance and set boundaries in a borderless world? How do we as parents accept our new role, demoted as we are to being just one of 200-plus friends on our child's Facebook – if we're lucky?
We could start by being better role models. Last summer a friend reacted sharply when I joked about the need to unplug and regain a sense of tech-life balance. We were both on holiday with our families. The two of us had stayed behind while the rest of the group went to the beach because he had to take just one final "really important call from work". It was hard for him to relax as he waited for the call. It was hard for me not to resent this intrusion into our holiday. The hypocrisy is not lost on our children. We tell them that they are getting addicted to their screens, but they see that we are too; it's just that we call it work.
I suppose I felt frustrated because four years earlier, I was just like my friend. As CEO of the charity Childnet International, which works to make the internet a safe place for children, I was at the heart of the digital debate about modern childhood and technology. I was constantly in touch with an ever-growing network of activists. The only problem was that my children weren't part of it and neither was my partner – my family life was being overloaded by the pressures of living online.
I was in danger of turning into a screenaholic, had stopped sleeping, and felt on edge – especially if I wasn't permanently connected. Finally, my doctor ordered me to switch off for a month. I did, but not easily, not in one go and not without a serious re-examination of how I was working.
Three years on, I work from home and am surrounded by technology, so the distinctions between work and home life are more fluid. All the more reason to have NST to act as a firewall between the colliding worlds of home and work. Of course NST may not be the answer for every family, but at least talking about the addiction to screens we all have is an opportunity to question our tech compulsion and our priorities for spending connected time with our children, and to re-examine our own tech-life balance.
So was Finlay's suggestion of a screen-free day the answer? We tried.First it was Thursdays, which worked for the first month but then became too rigid and pretty impossible. So we returned to a more balanced approach of having some NST every day, which has been an really positive experience. If nothing else, it has given us a sense of accountability to one another. Indeed, we actively encouraged the kids to challenge us if, for example, we dare to take a call when we're eating a meal together.
We've learned that it isn't about abstinence but balance, and being "present" and connected. The activities and settings where we share our lives with our children may have changed but the need for real, deep connection with them hasn't. Some teenagers really need you to stop what you're doing, snuggle down and watch Waterloo Road, or play a computer game with them and have active, physical screen time, to balance the non-screen time.
As I sit down to finish this article, the boys are calling up to me. "Dad, come and see this – you'll love it! It's hilarious!" I pretend not to hear them, having an idea what it will be.
They call again. "Honest, Dad – come and watch this ... He's a ledge!" (Ledge is short for "legend", their current favourite word).
I fight the urge to ignore them, but then realise that for the last 35 minutes I haven't been working; I've been "wilfing", a contraction of the phrase "What am I looking for?", aka mindlessly searching for things on the internet. This is now the favourite pastime of more than two-thirds of the 33.7 million internet users in the UK, according to a recent study. What's the difference between the side-splittingly funny YouTube clip the boys wanted me to see and my directionless time-filling?
I break off and am glad I have, because the delight on their faces, the budge-over-to-make-room shuffle, the anticipation and squeals of delight as they line it back up … these are the joys of being online, of celebrating screen time, of getting stuck in the middle.
It's challenging being middle-aged and middle-minded about the pros and cons of a rapidly changing world. I'm learning not to confuse communication with real connection. Given the choice, I'm not sure I'd want to swap my childhood of the 1960s with this shiny screen world – but I also recognise that my kids derive so much from their screens. I want to stay connected with them through, and around, the screens, and share this time fully with them.
Finding ways to break our dependency on screens is hard, but so too is keeping the joy of eye-contact alive.
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