I have a confession to make. I really don’t like IPads. Before you start throwing things at your computer screens or writing me off as an out-of-touch Luddite allow me to clarify a little. I would quite like an IPad for myself- you can’t help feeling a little left out when other people use them for everything from supermarket shopping (me: shopping list and pen), cooking (me: recipe book with actual pages), meetings (me: notebook stuffed with lists and scraps of paper) to church services (me: Bible, notebook, pen). If nothing else it would mean my handbag was a lot lighter. This French advertisement could actually be about me (even the same name!):
No, where I have the issue with IPads (and other portable devices like them- I’m not just singling out Apple) is when they are marketed for, and used by, children. Two news stories in particular have highlighted for me the problems associated with the increasing use of handheld electronic devices, especially those that can access the internet, by our kids (I’m mostly thinking of those of primary school age or younger).
Firstly, a recent report found that less than half of seven-year-olds get the recommended one hour of physical activity a day, and only 38% of girls (Click here for article). It’s not rocket science- the more time our children spend sitting down looking at a screen, the less time they have to be physically active. We adults are not the only ones with finite amounts of time at our disposal. Our children are living increasingly time-pressured lives as well, and they have to make choices about how they spend their time, just like we do. And we need to help them to do that. They might think that at seven they know what’s best for them- but I think we would all agree that they probably don’t. Computer games can be very addictive, for adults and children alike. Sometimes, we may need to say ‘no’, or ‘no more screen time today’, or ‘turn it off and go outside’.
Secondly, a news item earlier this week reported the prevalence of online grooming and cyberbullying amongst children and young people in the UK. According to figures published by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre, nearly half of known victims of cyber sexual predators worldwide are here in the UK, with children as young as eight years old being targeted. It is right and proper that the authorities concentrate their efforts on finding the paedophiles targeting our children, but parents have responsibilities in this area too. In my opinion, no child of primary school age should be accessing the internet unsupervised, period. We would not leave our children alone in a room full of strangers to talk to whoever happens to walk up and strike up a conversation with them. Why, then, are we content to let children as young as eight access social media sites and chatrooms? Children are not naturally cynical; they inherently tend to take people at face value. It is a very difficult and abstract concept to explain to a child that in the virtual world people may not always be who they say they are. That, to my mind, is the main problem with devices such as IPads that have internet access. It is precisely because they are so portable and easy to use that they present such a temptation, and a potential danger, to our children. One wrong click or swipe of the finger and they can end up seeing something that they wish they hadn’t; something that can never then be unseen.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-technology, or anti-internet. There is a wealth of information and entertainment there at our fingertips that can be a great resource for our children. The problem comes when we use IPads and the like as electronic babysitters and leave our children to their own devices. I believe we need to take the time to enter this world with them whilst they are still children, to teach them internet safety, to put boundaries in place. What works for our family is to put our laptop in a public place, which my daughters can use to access certain websites that we have agreed and explored with them in advance.
There is a lot of peer pressure at work in this area, for both children and parents. Pinterest and twitter posts about ‘best apps for your child’ abound. By labelling them as ‘educational’ we let ourselves be fooled into thinking that they are necessary, and that we are doing our children a disservice if we don’t give in to the hype. One mother I met on holiday last year suggested to me I was putting my children at a disadvantage by not allowing them to play with electronic gadgets. Yes, they may well have great educational value- but I would argue that spending time with our children, reading with them, adventuring with them, finding things out together, even looking things up online together, will be of even greater benefit.
As I’ve said many times before, each family is different; there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to parenting and family life. It is not my place, or anyone else’s, to pass judgement on the choices that other parents make. I do think, though, that it’s right and proper to question our choices; to realise that we have a responsibility to make informed decisions on behalf of our children, and not just to unquestioningly follow the herd.