Sunday 16 December 2018

Screens or no screens? How to hit the screen-time sweet-spot

Are our kids' soaring mental-health issues a result of their digital diversion? What example are you setting your children with your own online activity? You can turn social media into a social good. It's not the quantity of screen time that matters, as much as the quality. Be the digital librarian of your children's lives. They don't have to 'like' everything

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Talk to anyone about the advantages of private education and, chances are, they will mention not just academic and social privilege but something else, too, something intangible, almost mystical: confidence. When former British Prime Minister David Cameron was in Downing Street, you heard it a lot, comments about his Etonian ease. His critics often interpreted that ease negatively: as smugness, complacency.

But no one ever accused Cameron of being unhappy in his own skin; of self-doubt; of unhealthy obsessions and comparisons with his opponents. Indeed, today, we probably remember him best for that moment of staggering insouciance when, having lost the Brexit vote, he announced the timing of his resignation, then strolled back to the door of No 10, humming himself a little ditty. Deeply chillaxed.

Are middle-class parents still producing characters so at ease with themselves?

In education - both private and state - our children are pressured as never before. Exams are harder - 500 points is not enough. Degrees put many in debt. And our kids know this. Through their ubiquitous screens, they are aware as never before of the challenges that face them, of a globalised world that they must embrace and compete with. It is no longer sufficient to be the cleverest, most beautiful, funniest in a class of 30. Children can now compare themselves with the entire globe, with teens who have millions of YouTube followers or have made it in Hollywood. They are closer, through social-media feeds, to these phenomena than ever before. But that proximity can make them feel all the worse; bigger losers.

Screens aren't all bad - far from it. Our laptops and tablets can be portals to possibility and positivity. Children can talk to - and see - granny in Australia, in high definition, for free. They can follow online piano lessons and they can discover that, however alone or messed up they are feeling, there are a host of others out there, on social media, who feel as confused and wretched as they do. Remember that the next time you see your child's face illuminated by blue light and compare the scenario to your own youth, when screen time meant Dempsey's Den on the telly, and cutting-edge tech was the vidiprinter typing out the football results as they came in.

Today, most children are savvy enough - even if you aren't - to locate a dodgy stream of the match of their choice online, simultaneously engage in a comment spat with opposing fans they have never met, and keep their Snapstreak going on their phone at the same time. And, and, and… It's a distracting, delirious, digital world. So, how do we parents, struggling even to understand what they are up to, make sure that they are safe online, that for all their bravado, they are as happy with the digital world as they say they are? Or don't say, because sometimes it can feel impossible to get them to talk at all.

First of all, we are right to be alert, if not worried. For all its undoubted benefits, we simply don't know enough about the effects of a digital upbringing on mental health. We grown-ups may use many of the same platforms as our children, but unlike them, we haven't done so from birth. They are the guinea-pig generation. Is your daughter 14? Guess what, so is Facebook. Is her brother a year younger? So is YouTube, at 13. Still at primary school? So is Instagram, aged only eight. Snapchat? It was born more recently still, in 2011.

Whatever age your children are, if they are under 18, their entire conscious lives will have been lived in a social-media world of accessibility and interaction, comparison and scrutiny. If the thought makes your head spin, should you expect them to handle it better?

"Social media has some undoubted positives," says psychologist Tali Sharot, "but it is also related to mental-health problems. The first indications are not very positive. I worry a lot about how my own children [aged three and five] will use that. I think there is a good chance that it can enhance and trigger mental-health problems."

Her view might well mirror your own. But don't despair. There are lessons for parents that don't include taking a hammer to every screen in the house. First of all, perhaps, is to stop worrying about screen time. Stop watching the clock, and focus on what your children are doing online. "A lot of kids have no idea where to go online," says Professor Sonia Livingstone, of the London School of Economics, "so they flick aimlessly. They end up reading or looking at more and more of the same."

To counteract that, it's useful for parents to know what a "filter bubble" is, and learn how to pop it. The bubble is the algorithmically-driven circle of self-reinforcement that you will know from the "if you liked this, then you will also like…" recommendations on Amazon. On social media, the process can reinforce and deepen everything from political inclinations to taste in clothes, pop music and who's cool.

The internet, in consequence, can end up narrowing, not broadening. So challenge that. "Ask interesting questions," says Livingstone. "Use YouTube to experience other ways of life. We are all nostalgic for that librarian who was able to look at a child and suggest a wildcard book that would stretch them, push them beyond their established boundaries, take them up a level." As parents, we must try to be that eccentric librarian in the digital world.

The attention economy

Algorithms are just one of a battery of tricks and devices that digital companies use to keep your children glued to their devices. "We live in an attention economy," says Nir Eyal, a former developer of video games and advertising executive whose expertise is in habit-forming behaviour and how it can be exploited by digital companies. From the red circle of mobile-phone notifications to their chime and buzz, to video autoplays, to 'pull to refresh', a host of "attention traps", many drawn from the gambling world, keep us glued to our screens. "I have implored Snapchat to create a use-and-abuse policy," says Eyal. "One that says they will come up with a number of hours spent on the site, and after that they will reach out and offer assistance."

It is not as if digital companies don't know who their customers are or how much they are using their sites. On the contrary, they are in the business of knowing precisely who their customers are - all the better to sell advertising. So, says the lawyer and internet safety campaigner, Jenny Afia, they can hardly claim ignorance if children are using their platforms to excess. "We will see class-action cases coming, definitely," she says, of parents of children suing digital companies for knowingly hooking children to ill effect. Famously, Steve Jobs wouldn't let his children use an iPad. "They haven't used it," Jobs said, of the device he invented. "We limit how much technology our kids use at home."

Help is coming. Increased awareness of the "traps" used by digital developers is leading us towards changes in legislation across the world. But the overriding feeling for parents is surely that we are playing catch-up with technology.

"Even though it's only been six or seven years of [corporate] irresponsibility, that's a long time in a child's life," says Afia. "Habits formed by age nine are really difficult to break. It's when children are developing that they're most vulnerable."

How to turn social media into a social good

If all the talk of addiction sounds like a counsel of despair, then there's a flip side. For one thing, the rise of social media could be contributing to a decline in drugs use and violence among young people.

A European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs in 2016 found that the number of Irish teenagers who admitted smoking, drinking, gambling and taking drugs has fallen over the past 20 years. What could be the cause? "Kids spend so much time on social media - they are literally substituting that for sex, drugs and rock and roll," says Nir Eyal.

Parents concerned about screen time must also ask themselves another question, he says: "Children are not freebasing Facebook. They are not injecting it into their body. What's the lesser of two evils? I can't believe that there is a move to legalise marijuana but to legislate against Facebook."

So, how do parents hit the screen-time sweet-spot, preserving its benefits and doing away with its dangers. Eyal suggests, for a start, to be wary about the term "addiction", which can make both parents and children feel powerless and stop trying to reform behaviour. Instead, parents can master how to turn off notifications, switch off the buzzing and beeping that draws children back to their devices (or get their children to show them how). If you want total calm, free apps are available which effectively shut down devices for a specified period.

Once you have your settings where you want them, the next thing is to think about healthy online engagement. Here, there is one clear tip to take to heart: is your child using the internet in an active or a passive way? For example, is a fashion-conscious daughter just endlessly scrolling through pics of absurdly beautiful people and clothes or, having found an outfit she likes the look of, is she sending links to friends and messaging them to discuss?

"Are they actually using social media sociably?" asks Jane Caro, from British charity the Mental Health Foundation. "Or is it isolating? Are they active or passive? Research shows that is the key marker of healthy use. If they're very passive, just scrolling, there is a greater likelihood they will fall prey to damaging behaviour, like unhealthy comparisons with others." Perhaps this explains why, when I asked the experts I spoke to for these articles, most of them said they would prefer to see their children engaged with friends through a screen online (chatting on social media, or playing Fortnite in group mode) than sitting alone on a bed, reading War and Peace.

Parents, says Caro, should use tech alongside their children to help get a sense of, and mitigate, the risk of passivity. And they should also carve out space to be with their kids away from the noise of digital platforms. Whatever your kids might say, they just want you to be there for them, so agree to have family meals with no devices at the table, or take walks. Or simply watch telly together. A long-running Ofcom project that's tracking the lives of a group of children has found that despite the rise of Netflix and the possibility of watching shows on their own devices, kids still value family viewing, and look forward to watching a particular programme or time slot with their parents.

The porn problem

Of course, there are some subjects that even the most pally parent may find hard to broach with their child. According to a recent Mumsnet survey, exposure to pornography is the digital danger we fear most as parents - just above online bullying and exposure to violent images. But, sadly, parents must now expect that their children will eventually see hardcore pornographic images through the internet.

Indeed, porn - and accompanying warped expectations - can go hand in hand with bullying. Parents, say mental-health experts, must aim to pop unrealistic expectations about body shape and what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship. This goes as much, if not more, for parents of boys. "Something has to be done about boys," says Sonia Livingstone. "They are so hemmed in by narrow masculine structures. We need to let them be weaker. Teach them that girls can be as strong. That it's not a problem. Otherwise they can become furious, develop a rage, a dangerous hatred of the world - and especially women."

In girls, meanwhile, the social strain is showing up in other ways. In Ireland, the rate of hospital-treated self-harm is highest among young people. In 2016, the peak rate for women was in the 15-to-19-years age group, at 763 per 100,000, whereas the peak rate among men was in 20-to-24-year-olds, at 516 per 100,000. "These rates imply that one in every 131 girls in the age group 15 to 19, and one in every 194 men in the age group 20 to 24, presented to hospital in 2016 as a consequence of self-harm," the HSE said.

What can worried parents do? Caro advises keeping channels of communication open, even if teens don't want to talk to you.Particular warning signs are if you notice a distinct change if their behaviour; for example, if they no longer really care about eating, or their appearance. In these cases, it might be time to talk to their school. "Parents should not feel alone, that they are the only ones responsible," she says. "If you ask, school might say: 'No - she's got a good group of friends here' and ease your worry. If not, school is also in a good position to refer to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services [Cahms]."

Yet, Cahms is stretched. Schools, too, struggle with time and resources. Inevitably, a lot will bounce back on parents. Try to be open; ask questions, but don't lay down solutions; show your indignation if you feel your children are exposed to inappropriate pressure from their peers, so that they know you, too, think it's out of order.

The stakes are high: 50pc of adult mental-health problems begin by age 14. Three-quarters have developed by age 24.

"Child development is the bedrock of adult mental health," says Caro. "It's totally key. And there's a significant increase at the moment."

If it's tempting to lay the blame at the door of social-media platforms, then Caro serves a reminder that we as parents are never powerless. "Discuss with your kids that they might just be seeing the airbrushed side of events, or people, online," she says. "Because they see all those lovely things, they can feel that everyone is having a lovely life and they're not. Then shame kicks in. And it's that feeling of shame that is so damaging."

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