Wednesday 21 August 2019

Our children are in danger of spending their best years staring at iPad screens

Research has shown that a child born today will have spent a full year staring at screens by the time they reach seven
Research has shown that a child born today will have spent a full year staring at screens by the time they reach seven

Sinéad Moriarty

Kate Winslet's comments that parents are "losing control" of their children to social media has caused quite a stir.

But she does have a point. In fact, I'm so concerned about my lack of knowledge in this area that I've just booked in for a talk on cyber safety.

I'm someone who can barely use the remote control on our new smart TV. My six-year-old can fly through the options. I, on the other hand, angrily thump random buttons in the hope that some channel or other will appear.

I realise that social media is going to be a part of my children's lives and I need to try and understand how to manage that.

Winslet (pictured) says she bans the use of social media. On the one hand, I applaud her but I don't think banning it is going to stop your kids using it. All they need is a friend with a phone or to be in a wifi zone to do what they want.

The latest Eircom Household Sentiment Survey showed that all of the 16-24-year-olds in Ireland are online; 95pc of this age group reveal that they access the internet once a day or more and 15pc admit that they are online "practically every hour that they are awake".

FOMO (fear of missing out) is still prevalent, with nearly half of 16-24-year-olds (46pc) admitting to a fear of missing out on something when they are not online.

The survey shows that the younger generation are the nation's early adopters when it comes to technology - and far more informed than their parents, with 83pc of parents agreeing that their children know more about technology than they do. This rises to 92pc among parents of children aged between 13 and 17.

I know of no parent who doesn't worry about the effects of social media on their children. You only have to look at the Facebook pages of young teenage girls to see them posting photos of themselves looking, at times, like hookers.

These 13-year-old girls don't realise that the images they post could end up attracting the wrong attention.

And even if it just attracts attention from people they know, is it the right attention? Should people be commenting on your 'ass' and 'boobs' at that age? Should they say you're 'hot' or 'too fat for that dress' or 'ugly'?

People very rarely are insulting to your face but by God they're free and easy on social media. The pressure that brings can be crippling for young teens.

Unfortunately, the problems begin long before the teenage stage of Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram photos. Tablets and phones are now put into the hands of babies before pencils.

The term 'iPaddy' has been coined to describe the tantrums sparked when a device is taken away from a baby. Then there is the iPotty where your child can play on an iPad while toilet training. There is also the drool-proof iPad case.

Research has shown that a child born today will have spent a full year staring at screens by the time they reach seven. Toddlers and young children are supposed to learn though physical play, not sitting indoors staring at screens.

Every parent needs a break and if handing over your phone for half-an-hour to have some time to yourself works, then why not? The problem seems to be the addictive nature of tablets and phones.

On any given night, you'll see families out for dinner in restaurants and the only people conversing are the parents. The kids are more often than not staring at screens. While it's nice not to have screaming kids running amok or moaning loudly, not hearing any child's voice is kind of eerie.

It's the same in cars now too. Kids watch movies or play on tablets during long journeys. While of course it can certainly make the journey less fraught, we seem to be losing the art of conversation.

Mealtimes and travelling in the car can often be the best places to find out what's going on in your children's lives.

It's not going to happen if they are fixated on a screen.

And it's not just conversation we're losing, it's our eyesight too. Research has shown that the overuse of tablets and phones by children and less outdoor play is directly causing shortsightedness in later life.

Being inside all the time is affecting our children's eyesight. Children need to spend at least three hours a day outside in daylight.

Don Stack, a leading Irish eye specialist, says: "This is simply the latest confirmation of numerous studies that have shown that children's exposure to sunlight has a direct impact on their propensity towards myopia."

Needing glasses is only a small part of the negative impact too much screen time has on young children. Parents can endanger their children's development by giving them less and less face-to-face interaction.

Teresa Heeney, from Early Childhood Ireland, feels strongly that the overuse of tablets is harmful.

"Parents and guardians are certainly doing their child no favours by introducing screen time too soon and too often. Overuse can lead to isolation, depression, stress, anxiety. And the opportunity cost in terms of what they are missing in terms of going out to play with, or simply to chat with their friends or family face to face can't be overestimated."

It seems clear that we need to restrict viewing time for younger children and encourage more outdoor play.

As for the older children, we need to teach them that everything they do online creates a permanent digital footprint.

We must encourage them to stop and think about any content before posting it online. Once it goes up, it can never come down.

Irish Independent

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