With Christmas comes the plea for gadgets - but should kids have them?
"Mammy," came a little voice from the back of the car, "can I have a remote control for Christmas?" A remote control? We don't have any computer games in our house (yet!), but my boy knew from visiting his friends' houses that he was missing out on something big - and that this something big definitely involved remote controls. 'Oh God,' I thought to myself, 'and so it begins'.
I'm not alone - whether it is a 'remote control' or an iPad, as we count down the sleeps to Christmas many parents are agonising about allowing more technology into their homes. Depending on the age of our children, parents fret about whether we should allow children to get a smartphone, or whether the arrival of PS4 into the house will diminish fights or increase them. Many parents don't really want more technology but not many of us are willing to make a social outcast out of our kids.
A recent study by Early Childhood Ireland found that 66pc of Irish parents believe that it is OK for young children to use technology freely. These parents argue that technology is educative, creative and progressive. And it can be - just like the demon drink, technology is a good servant but a bad master. Whooping with pride because your two-year-old can access Postman Pat all by himself on YouTube isn't particularly opening the doors of knowledge for your child. It's not very hard to find a programme on YouTube and it doesn't suggest that your child is a mini Steve Jobs - in fact, it probably suggests that you need to be more involved in your child's life.
Indeed, there is a well-established trend among engineers and tech executives in Silicon Valley to protect their children from the excesses of technology - they even prefer to send their kids to specifically non-tech schools so that they can focus on hands-on learning. Father of five, Chris Anderson, CEO of the drone manufacturing company 3D Robotics, explains: 'My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, saying none of their friends have the same rules. That's because we have seen the dangers of technology first-hand. I've seen it in myself. I don't want to see that happen to my kids."
It is well known (but often ignored) that Steve Jobs had strict controls over his children's usage of technology. When Jobs was asked did his kids love the new iPad, Jobs' response was clear: "They haven't used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home."
So when parents decide to allow their children get an iPad for Christmas, what exactly are they giving them? Although it might seem like merely a fashionable accessory that all the teenagers have, these gadgets are powerful pieces of technology. They often provide the user with an access-all-areas free pass to the red light districts of the world. From the comfort of their bedroom, your children can contact people from all over the globe. And anyone can contact them.
Amanda Brunker has described how her son was subject to horrible abuse when he played the computer game Clash of Clans in the privacy of his own bedroom. 'Kill yourself. Ure ugly. U have no friends. Die, die, die…' advised the trolls to her innocent seven-year-old boy as he used social media to play his favourite game with others. The night of the Late Late Toy Show is usually the most innocent night of the year in this country, but unfortunately this year the innocent glee was tainted by online racist insults about six-year-old Lara Reddy, who was so crazy as to recite a bold little ditty. And that's all it was. But there is nobody more sensitive than a self-righteous keyboard warrior as they furiously post evil diatribes about other people's supposedly insensitive behaviour.
Earlier this week, Conor O'Keefe (26) from Dublin was found guilty of creating a false online social media profile in order to have sex with underage children. O'Keefe managed to duck the security feature on Tagged.com by pretending to be a 13-year-old girl called 'Julia', before grooming a 15-year-old girl. After winning the child's confidence, O'Keefe pretended to be Julia's big brother 'Adam', and bugged, hassled and guilt-tripped the unknowing teen into having sex with him. The complexities of this case show us just how devious and clever predators are when they set out to have sex with minors. They lure them in under false pretences and then set elaborate traps to ensure that the children feel too guilty, scared or ashamed to tell anyone about it.
So, in a world obsessed with technology, what are parents to do this Christmas? The odd parent takes the hard line and imposes an all-out ban on screens. But, in truth, most of us have a complex love-hate relationship with technology - we aren't thrilled when we see our children gazing slack-jawed at the screen, but then we read reports of Mark Zuckerberg donating $45 billion and we figure that this is the era of the geek in the bedroom. The Renaissance Man is old hat - athletes are all suspected to be on drugs, and the computer geeks rule the universe.
Will my six-year-old get an electronic gadget for Christmas? I'm not yet sure. I'm looking into allowing a Wii into the house - hoping that they might be the lesser of the many evils involved - but then I wonder if I could kick the can down the road for another year.
Because it's like losing your virginity - once the technology comes into the house, we can't reverse the process, it's in the door and all that is left for parents to do is batten down the hatches so that they are ready for the inevitable fights. Now where's that remote control?
Stella O'Malley is author of 'Cotton Wool Kids'