Saturday 19 October 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'As parents we've replaced out-to-play time with screen time'

harmful space: We are allowing our children to freely enter the world of the internet where dangers lurk around many corners. Picture posed by model
harmful space: We are allowing our children to freely enter the world of the internet where dangers lurk around many corners. Picture posed by model
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

A new study by CyberSafeIreland has confirmed what many of us already know - that our children are spending far too much time in front of screens.

The research revealed exactly how much time our children are spending on screens and what they are doing with that time. The research is, in my view, unequivocally stark.

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One third of eight- to 13-year-olds are talking daily to strangers online. Some of these strangers could be other kids, but you can't know that as you don't know them in real life.

One in eight is spending more than four hours on screens every day. When you factor in sleep, school, homework and eating, that is almost all of their waking hours.

And 43pc of 10-year-old boys are playing over-18 games online. And let's be clear - content is only given an over-18 rating because full-on sex and violence is involved.

Children in disadvantaged areas are significantly more likely to be doing all of these things.

The real question is why is it happening? When you talk to parents, the majority say this is not what they want. I think it's down to silly aspirational parenting rather than realistic parenting.

To explain, let me quote a text to my radio show during the week.

"Back in our day we were shooed out the door to play all day; we'd never have been allowed to be on screens. Parents need to start bringing their kids to the park and the beach and get them out and about being active."

Sounds reasonable - as if you are comparing like with like. As if you are saying that we need to give our children a childhood much like our own childhood.

We were out and about being active - our kids should be too, so parents need to get on it! However, the key phrase "we were shooed out" changes everything.

Our parents did exactly what we are doing - they ignored us for large parts of the day. They shoved us out the door so we weren't underfoot annoying them and looking for things. Parents nowadays do the same by allowing their children to look at their phones, Xboxes and Switches.

Children have always been allowed, indeed encouraged, to spend lots of time unsupervised. The difference now is that we no longer let our children outside on their own.

Instead we let them play in a place where there is far more bullying and far greater threats from strangers - the internet.

Our parents did not spend their time ferrying us from activity to activity or arranging wholesome outings for us to take part in at weekends.

They practised benign neglect. "Out the door with you and come back for your dinner."

We are doing much the same. So, yes, we may aspire to head off every Saturday to walk hills and dales with our children, but instead we stay in bed with hangovers and our children roam freely on Grand Theft Auto.

We used to spend at least four hours a day unsupervised and playing outside - it is that time that modern parents have replaced with screen time for their children.

And the truth is this: as long as we agree as a nation that our children can't go out and play by themselves unsupervised, this will continue.

Parents may aspire to be doing all kinds of activities with their children, but thanks to the reality of their lives, they fall far short of those aspirations and the kids are instead left to their own devices - literally.

So, I think there are a few things we should all agree on. I think no child of eight years of age should have unsupervised access to a phone, or indeed anything connected to the internet.

I think at whatever age you give an internet- connected device to a child, you should also be obliged to install protective software that links their device to yours and filters the home wi-fi for the kids.

I think we cannot let our children wander the internet anymore than we could let them wander the roads without a conversation on safety. A proper conversation.

You tell them not to talk to strangers in real life; that needs to be said about the virtual world, too. Equally, with almost half of young children looking at over-18 content, this needs to be said: "See that game where prostitutes get shot? That's not cool."

We also need to talk about porn. As well as discussing the real and difficult issue of cyberbullying.

But, perhaps most radically, we don't have to accept that the only place our eight- to 13-year-olds can be left unsupervised for a bit is in front of a screen.

Perhaps like other countries such as Finland and Iceland, we could reclaim the streets for our children.

We were allowed out to play as kids. It was good for us and it kept us fit. We learnt to socialise. We developed motor skills. And playing in the streets fostered independence. Perhaps it's time we started shooing our children out the door again instead of onto their phones.

There were risks then, as there are risks now. Those risks haven't changed; we just need to understand that the benefits outweighed the risks then as they do now.

Perhaps the real difference between parenting then compared to now is that our parents didn't have these screens to fall back on as a way of keeping us occupied.

We've replaced out-to-play time with screen time.

We tell ourselves we should be going places with our kids - but we aren't doing that. We aspire to be the perfect parents, instead of admitting to just being normal parents.

Let's start a campaign to bring back free play outdoors.

Reclaim the streets for our kids - the alternative just isn't good for them.

Ciara presents 'Lunchtime Live' on Newstalk Radio weekdays, midday to 2pm. @ciarakellydoc

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