When it comes to technology, I’m a total hypocrite. I silently judge people who get out their phones in a darkened cinema or at the dinner table, yet when my own phone pings, I reach for it immediately without much thought for where I am or what I’m doing. Similarly, I buy into the idea that we spend too much time staring at screens, but when I come home from my computer-based job, I unwind in front of the TV.
I am not addicted to technology, but it is part of my life. However, I think it’s fair to say that young people today are far more attached to electronic devices than older people are (and by older people I mean 25 and above).
When I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, the most advanced thing you could do on a mobile phone (if you were lucky enough to have one) was play Snake. Families had a single computer between them, and kids had to get off the internet when their mum wanted to call their gran because only dial-up internet was available – we had none of this fancy broadband and wireless stuff.
I didn’t have access to the plethora of technologies and social media that young people now do. With this in mind, I was not too surprised to read that parents find it hard to control their children’s technology usage. A poll of parents by children's charity Action for Children found that nearly a quarter of parents struggle to control their children's use of smartphones, laptops and televisions.
On first reading, this worried me. I envisaged children and teenagers inside dark rooms glued to screens, ignoring an Enid Blyton-esque outside world full of sunshine and adventure. I imagined that instead of scraped knees from climbing trees, kids were getting thumb strain from too much texting.
Then I tried to think about this from a young person’s perspective and I sort of understood why they may use it a bit too much. Technology is how young people interact with their friends: to be disconnected must give them an intense fear of missing out (or FOMO as the kids would say). Fitting in and belonging is so important to teenagers especially, and technology is one way they do this. Furthermore, technology is an avenue for self-expression. Instead of keeping a diary like their parents might have, young people post a Facebook message, tweet or write a blog instead.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that we allow children to spend as much time on computers and phones as they want to. There is a dark side to technology. Cyber-bullying is a real and growing problem, and too much technology use can create a sense of disconnection in a family dynamic. Some research even suggests that excessive use of technology is linked to poor results.
So how can we strike a balance? One of the suggestions from Action from Children is to create a schedule on the principle of an hour of 'energy in' (technology use) equalling an hour of 'energy out' (other activities). I think that establishing ground rules is a good idea, but I’d add that young people should be consulted on those rules. Young people know better than adults how they use technology and the impact of being without it. For example, a rule banning use of the computer after a certain time would stop teenagers spending all evening on Facebook, but it might also stop them from finishing their homework.
We need a more nuanced approach to excessive use of technology than a simple ban, because a ban doesn’t appreciate how times have changed. Banning mobile phones or internet access might seem logical, but to a young person it might seem counterproductive or even cruel. Think about how you would feel if someone took your phone away and cut you off from friends, or told you to complete a piece of work but then took away the tools you need to do it.
So next time you're irritated because a child you know would rather Snapchat than actually chat, ask yourself: would my 13-year-old self have been any different?