• Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Children and apps: Should we fear the iNanny?


It’s Saturday morning and my children bunch together on the sofa, limbs entwined but minds very much elsewhere, hurled into their several worlds thanks to a couple of iPads and an iPod touch. Everywhere I look there is evidence of heavy usage and dependency. Discarded screen wipes, ear-phone wires and socket extensions trail across the floor.

“Now – now – I need my next charge,” gasps my 10-year-old son, whenever his iPad threatens to flatline and slip below 10 percent.

My two-year-old, Amelia, deflates when Waybuloo fades to black, a signal for me to scrabble around in the detritus for a lead before there’s an iTantrum. Amelia responds so instinctively to a touch-screen, she strokes every flat surface expectantly, waiting for it to light up and activate.

We watch the Apple logo pulse seductively back to life a few minutes later. “Look, iPad waking up again!”

Once they’re all plugged in, I slope back to the kitchen leaving behind a clashing chorus of soundtracks dredged from all corners of the internet; these days Dani’s House and Minecraft fused with a little Harlem Shake. We retreat and tune out, my husband on his iPod while I scroll through my online newspaper.

Welcome to my iFamily, one where our leisure time is increasingly shaped by tablets, phones and laptops – either Apple or its proliferating rivals – and where much of our weekend communication is characterised by the following: Louis, 10: “What’s your password for iTunes again?”; Evie, nine: “Mum, Amelia just deleted the Lovefilm app”; Amelia: “iPad gone black.” Cries. So it goes on.

Our family is not alone. Only this week, it emerged that a four-year-old girl is having compulsive behaviour therapy after becoming increasingly “distressed and inconsolable” when the iPad was taken away. Her use of the device had escalated over the course of a year and she was using it up to four hours a day.

Sometimes, like her parents I’m sure, I can’t help pining for the monolithic charms of the television – only one remote to control, one voice, programme or soundtrack. Now whenever I turn my back, another screen pops up, another window and volume button with a squawking, tinny soundtrack. It’s as if Apple has been breeding in my living room; its slim screens and sleek lines clogging up our shelves and kitchen surfaces, beyond reproach because they look so good. TVs were certainly as addictive but they were never objects of desire in themselves – a double curse.

When our 10-year-old begged us for an iPad mini for Christmas, we caved in partly because we were seduced too. Parents are as childishly enthralled as their teenage sons and tiny babies, which is why they have infiltrated family life on such an unprecedented scale – over 100m iPads had sold worldwide by last year.

The problem is, it’s a shared family dependency and I can only really blame myself. I’ve recently bought a new laptop and smartphone and am enthralled with – and hooked on – both. I’m as addicted as they are, so do I have any right to complain? As a parent, I should monitor and impose many more rules than I do. Instead, I resort to exasperated threats, shrieking at them when it gets to homework, bath and guitar practice times. With the communal joys of FaceTime, my lame rants and outbursts are often witnessed in real time with great amusement by a bunch of their friends, and parents too for all I know.

Partly I resist being too stringent because, clearly, I enjoy the window of freedom this shared technology affords. Having a toddler third time round isn’t the same deal at all – long car journeys are less fraught. Reading a newspaper feature uninterrupted on a Saturday morning is no longer in the realm of fantasy. I’m not complaining – I just don’t feel this development has led to my finest parenting moments.

Last Friday, I vacuumed the house while Amelia looked at YouTube. As I sucked up the last bit of fluff from behind the sofa, I noticed she was watching Mickey Mouse in Russian. On the upside, her cultural references are diverse these days; she can sing in Korean, thanks to Gangnam Style.

I can also see how much pleasure she derives from the immediacy of the touch screen; her joy at controlling what she consumes with a navigates her way around the iPlayer and sends out the odd accidental tweet via her favourite Japanese game app, her grandma sits next to her on her own iPad watching repeats of Pointless.

I know that banning or denying them would be useless. Instead, I prefer to re-frame my limp submission as pragmatic and innovative. Indeed, according to Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at the University of London, specialising in children and technology, I am embracing the future, engaging as a family rather than taking an extreme position that would only drive their usage underground. She says, “In all the time I’ve been studying technology and family, the most overwhelmingly successful approach is when you open it up with your children, find out how it works, understand what’s good and bad and all engage with it.”

In her research, Luckin has discovered that tablets can encourage the sort of social interaction that aids education and learning. “One of the key benefits is that they can become a focus for discussion between parents and children. These devices are easy to share – they are not as isolating as PCs used to be. They are a window to a larger experience that can connect you to different parts of family life – pictures, videos, books, learning.” We do seem to use these devices in proximity; my children tend not to take them to their bedrooms, they squeeze up on the sofa sharing games and apps.

I know that where it can all unravel is when you treat a tablet as a childminders. “I see you’re making good use of the iNanny,” noted one mother drily when she came to visit. Luckin says, “The device on its own won’t offer much that is positive. It has to be part of a united family effort of working out how to embrace it.”

If not, their impact is inevitably divisive. I’m extremely aware that family conflict in our household tends to erupt when I’ve allowed the children to languish for too long on screens. I vent my guilt and frustration, usually with impotent threats to throw away their chargers, a negative cycle that plays out too often.

Luckin’s right – where iPads work best is when we share activities; digesting and reading information for school projects, drawing and creating stuff together with art and animation apps, watching Miranda on the iPlayer.

Now I’m more aware of these dynamics, the culture of the iPad has forced us to modify our behaviour … slightly. We do manage to ringfence time, scheduling hours for reading books as well as upping the amount of activities outside the home, one sure way to avoid the temptation altogether.

Often one form of consumption can inform another; Louis admitted recently that he’d been watching something very funny on the iPad about the Pink Pussy nightclub. Horrified, I demanded to know what it was and he navigated me swiftly to the new series of Blandings on iPlayer. He enjoys it so much that I now read him PG Wodehouse each evening.

Tablets are intrinsically democratic; they defy the traditional patriarchal model of parenting, which can’t be a bad thing. As Luckin says, “They’ll be confronted with them at school and friends’ houses, so parents need to ask, ‘How do we turn it to our best advantage?’” In my household, letting Amelia surf YouTube while I pour another glass of wine is probably the truthful answer.

Setting online boundaries for children

• It’s not about your child’s behaviour but your own. Do you spend your life attached to your smartphone or tablet, never quite switching off, always poised to pounce when the new message alert sounds? If so, take heed: as with the rest of parenting, your child learns much more from what you do than from what you say. If you want to encourage a toddler to concentrate on one thing at a time, don’t read bedtime stories with one eye on the Blackberry.

• It’s never too early to set boundaries on, for example, the time a child may spend on a tablet. There is not enough research to know what the limits should be – so trust your instincts. Establish in your child’s mind that there are rules and limits: these will be different at three than 13, but the first thing to emphasise is the framework.

• If you feel your child is obsessed with a piece of technology or software, reduce its availability. If you feel your child’s behaviour is affected adversely, ban its use altogether. You’re in charge.

•Abstinence is not the answer. By puberty your child will engage with technology, whatever you allowed when they were tiny. And without a build-up of sensible rules and attitude in early childhood, an older child will find it harder to negotiate the world of smartphones and iPads.

• Your attitude to your child’s relationship to technology should mirror the relationship to food. Left to their own devices, many children would eat chocolate and ice-cream all day long, but no sensible parent would allow that. A child needs a balanced diet of fun and interaction offline, as well as online.

• Learning to socialise and interact online starts with learning those skills offline, not the other way round.

Culled from the guardian.co.uk