Wednesday 26 July 2017

Dr Ciara Kelly: Is the real danger hiding in our kids' pockets?

Dr Ciara Kelly
Dr Ciara Kelly

Ciara Kelly

Parenting - it's one of those things we desperately want to get right - and very often we do, in fairness to us. But we are parenting in new and uncharted waters now, in that no other generation of parents has had to contend with the technology that this generation of children are dealing with.

Children who turn eight this year are known as iPhone babies because for no part of their lives were those little super computers we all carry around not a part of day-to-day living.

From before some of them could walk, they were learning to swipe a touch screen, as parents the world over used the likes of Peppa Pig to soothe, distract and sometimes sedate a fractious child. The jury is still out on what the real effects of interacting with a screen that doesn't respond meaningfully to you are - although it is believed that constant stimulation or indeed one- way interaction, may affect social development, but that's not really what I want to talk about.

Giving your kids your phone episodically in a restaurant or whatever to allow a moment's sanity and some much needed adult conversation to carry on uninterrupted however briefly is one thing - giving them their own phones that they have on them at all times is something else.

My eldest child got a smartphone when he went into first year in secondary school - he was one of the last of his friends to get one. My next child got one in sixth class, she was one of the last of her friends to get one. They got them partly because, truthfully, they had been pestering us for a long time about getting one - it is hard to fly in the face of a constant "I'm the only person I know who doesn't have X."

You do start to subscribe to the narrative your child is creating that they are somehow cruelly deprived of X - however ridiculous that is or however unnecessary X may be.

We give children phones to protect them - but there are risks too
We give children phones to protect them - but there are risks too

But we also got them phones to protect them. As your kids hit double figures age-wise they start to go out and about on their own for the first time. They go up the road to call to their pals' house. They start to run down to the corner shop for a pint of milk occasionally. They begin to make their own way to school. And we get them phones because we are afraid that something could happen to them so we want them to be able to call us. We want to know where they are at all times so we want to be able to call them. We're afraid they might have an accident. We're afraid they might be kidnapped.

Yes, when we were young we ran about the place and our parents never knew where we were without undue difficulty. No, we never had major accidents they didn't hear about. No, we weren't kidnapped. But these are the things we are afraid of now - despite the likelihood of them ever happening being extraordinarily rare. Despite the rate of child abduction being no different now to when we were children ourselves.

We give them mini computers to protect them from dangers that are never going to happen to them and in doing so we expose them to the actual and very real dangers of the internet. David Coleman, the psychologist, says if you don't want your child to be looking at porn at the age of 10 or 11 then don't give them a smartphone at that age. He says if we want to avoid children seeing explicit content they're far too young to be able to deal with, then our kids shouldn't be getting phones until they are much older - because as soon as they have them - they will see this stuff.

Last week the papers reported that a nine-year-old girl sent explicit photos of herself to some classmates - because she thought it was expected of her. It was newsworthy because it's shocking - not because it's unusual. The worst thing I ever saw as a kid was a snippet of the Alfred Hitchcock film Frenzy. It haunted me for weeks, if not longer. We have no idea really what the effects of seeing hardcore porn or violence on very young minds will be - but we put them directly in the way of it. Just so they won't have to walk a few yards up the road without being able to contact us. You have to ask are we afraid of the right things? There is no bogeyman. Is the real danger not sitting in our kids pockets?


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