Get off your phone!

Can’t get your kids off their phones?  

It’s a brilliant blue-sky day.  Warm, but not too hot.  The beach is a two-minute walk away.  Summer holidays.  Children’s storybooks would tell us that the kids are already up and out, foraging for treasures on the rocky shoreline, or paddling in the waves that gently lap the shoreline.

But when I look around, the picture is quite different.  My kids are wrapped up in quilts, lying in darkened bedrooms.  They woke early and padded into the kitchen quietly, so as not to wake me.  Scurrying back with their treasured phones, they’ve spent the past hour (at least) on YouTube and playing Among Us.  

When I suggest it’s time to put the phones down there are howls of protest.  “I’m in the middle of a game!”, or “just let me finish this one!”.

It’s a conversation repeated in families everywhere, and over the past year we’ve all relied more heavily than ever on technology for education, entertainment and support.  It’s been a lifeline in many ways, but it’s also profoundly impacting the way our children are experiencing the world.

Does it matter?

We know that technology is designed to hook our children’s attention and to hold it - and for longer than we’d like!  But increasingly we’re coming to understand that there is another side to the equation.  

Our children’s dependence on technology also provides them with a way to navigate (or perhaps even try to find respite from?) the challenging experience of growing up.

In his wonderful book He’s Not Lazy, Adam Price identifies three core emotions that children need as they go through adolescence: Competence, control and connection.

This might be particularly challenging for our boys.  Our school system rewards children who are able to sit quietly at their desks, work independently and please their teacher.  Price observes, though, that these are traits more likely to be represented by a female style of learning and behaviour.  It can leave our boys feeling that they don’t measure up.

Feeling incompetent is a highway to disengagement, which is only compounded if our children have additional challenges like ADHD or learning disabilities.  Technology offers scope for mastery that might not be found so easily in the classroom.  No wonder it’s hard to put down.

It also offers an opportunity for connection that might not be so easy to find in the real world.  Navigating complex social environments is a skill that many adults struggle with, so it’s perhaps little wonder that our kids are finding this tough too?  Their time online offers them an opportunity to mediate this engagement more readily than spontaneous encounters in the real world might, and also a way to break free of the parental cocoon that is a natural part of adolescence.

It helped me a lot to begin thinking about why my children are so enthralled, and also more patient when it came to understanding just why my request to put down the phones and head outside might not be quite so simple as I’d thought.  

It also encouraged me to analyse how much time I am spending on my own phone, and the behaviour that I’m modelling to them.  

We are learning from each other.  

I raised my concerns with the children a few days ago.  

I want them to take advantage of their freedom this summer.  Their access to a clean beach, to a forest mountain biking trail is increasingly becoming a privileged existence.  COVID reminds us that these freedoms are not as failsafe as we once might have thought.  Bringing our children up with a lived experience of nature, with the familiarity that comes with observing the changing seasons, with a capacity to track the erosion of our coastline, or the decline of precious wildlife, are all ways that we can encourage a more thoughtful and caring way of moving through the world.  

This time, I didn’t impose time limits on their use of tech.  I just opened up a conversation.  The next day, the children independently decided to set their own limits (see image).  Sure, they might have been a bit ambitious: they haven’t yet managed to stick to the times... and no one has offered me $10 yet, either!  

But they now have a yardstick by which to measure their own screentime, and are beginning to shift to what’s termed an “internal locus of control”.  In essence, they are beginning to govern their own behaviour rather than relying on me to set their limits.

I’m also trying to practice what I preach.  It’s so easy to disappear down a rabbit-hole, and the hour I allocated to this writing has expanded to four spent in front of the computer!  I’m guessing I’m not the only one, though, and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve found success in balancing technology with life away from the screen?