Judith Wood: I feel ashamed for leaving my child glued to a gadget that was making her miserable
NOT so long ago, my daughter trailed into the sitting room and thrust her iPod Touch into my hands. "What is it now?" I demanded wearily. "Do you want me to update it or reboot it or pay for more apps involving panicky little men pursued by angry monkeys? Because, really, you spend far too much time . . ." – and then I caught sight of her pale face and noticed her air of droopiness.
"Please take it away," she said. "It's making me depressed. If I'm on it for too long, I feel really sad. I don't know why, but I do."
I tell this story not by way of self-congratulation at my child's emotional intelligence. Quite the reverse – I feel ashamed that I allowed my 10-year-old to be glued to a screen for so long that it actually made her miserable.
I wouldn't allow her to sit in front of the television for that long without sticking my head around the door to vet what she was watching. When she was holed up in her bedroom, though, I knew she might be using her i-gadget – but surely not for the whole time?
So news that "iPad addiction" has been identified among children as young as four struck an uncomfortable chord with me.
It was reported recently that a young girl who was using a computer for "three or four hours a day" apparently became "distressed and inconsolable" when the device was taken away and she was signed up for compulsive behaviour therapy by her parents.
Obviously, some children find themselves more deeply hooked than others, but surely talk of "addiction" is just the medicalisation of what is simply a symptom of slack parenting?
We're all guilty of treating mummy's smartphone as a babysitter. Daddy's tablet is a godsend on a rainy day. The toddler can be kept amused on a potty with an iPad. But four hours must constitute child abuse.
Middle-class adults who wouldn't dream of allowing a television in their child's bedroom have no qualms about a state-of-the-art PC, even though their child could watch TV on it or surf for porn (a study last year showed that 22pc of 11-year-olds in the UK know how to bypass parental controls).
Of course, any four-year-old, or indeed 14-year-old, will throw a strop if their favourite toy is removed. But, according to the experts, young people's obsession with smartphones and tablets goes deeper. So, unless parents wake up to the fact that our responsibility for our children extends to the virtual world, we are doing them a grave disservice.
"Younger and younger children are more engaged with technology and the internet and we need to be mindful of that and set boundaries from the beginning of life, really," says child psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham, who established Britain's first technology addiction programme at the Capio Nightingale Clinic in London (and treated the four-year-old girl) three years ago.
In these tranquil, discreet London environs, the young people admitted for a 28-day digital detox regime are immensely troubled.
They are the extreme cases, teenagers who have dropped out of school, who no longer interact face to face but channel all their energies into the online community.
"There are a couple of cases I have been involved in where parents tried to restrict their teenager's access to devices and were met with such violence that the police had to be called," says Dr Graham.
"There is also an increase in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is a component of the brain's reward system."
Dopamine is produced in response to novelty and is also a motivational chemical that encourages an individual to repeat actions, hence it is implicated in addictive behaviour and in poor attention spans.
Susan Greenfield, the eminent neuroscientist, has already called for studies to be made into the impact of repeated use of computer games and social networking sites on the development of children's brains.
"The environment of children has been changed in an unprecedented way in the past 10 years, and we need to know whether it is affecting them," she urged, while emphasising she did not intend to scaremonger. "The job of scientists like myself is to put their heads out of the lab door and engage with the real world."
Our children belong to a generation who might look before they cross, but don't think before they post. Taking stock and analysis of any sort are the very antithesis of the instant messaging culture.
Dr Graham has some tough words for parents seeking to curb their children's Instagram habit.
"This issue isn't about reducing our children's access," he stresses. "Adults need to be modelling a healthy balance and stop themselves constantly checking their own devices for emails and texts."
Wise, if unwelcome, advice. I'm surely not the only mother who prefers the "do as I say, not as I do" school of parenting, as I secretly text under the table. (© Daily Telegraph, London)