by Sarah Hughes
“Boys!” I shout up the stairs; “Time to turn the Xbox off.”
I hear muffled, disgruntled complaints from my eldest two sons, as I approach with caution my four year old, who has been engrossed in the Mr Bean cartoon on Netflix for almost an hour.
“Sweetheart. We’re going to turn the TV off now and do something different.”
“What? But I just need to watch one more episode pleeeeaaaase!?”
“No, You’ve already watched three episodes and your brain needs to do something different now. Otherwise it won’t work properly. You can play with your lego, or your sand… or you could go out on the trampoline with your brothers?”
“It’s raining Mam. Like, totally pouring.” Says the eldest, who has appeared behind me looking absolutely furious.
“Well you’ll have to find something else to do then, all of you. I can’t have you just sat glued to screens all night can I?”
There’s a desperate silence as we all contemplate our next move. Please God let nobody suggest a family jigsaw session.
We’ve been here before. Many, many times.You see, I have a real love/hate relationship with screens when it comes to my kids. I love devices because they allow me peace and quiet, the space to get meals cooked or washing hung out or emails sent without my kids demanding my attention. The truth of the matter is I don’t think most parents would’ve survived the lockdowns without them. Can you actually imagine what that would’ve looked like?
I hate devices too though, because of the way they stupefy; in fact zombify my sons. I think it’s unfair to say that all children react in the same way to screen time; my middle child can take or leave it. He’d always rather be outside with a football given the chance. But my eldest and youngest would happily go back to wearing nappies if it meant they didn’t have to drag themselves away from FIFA (or Mr Bean ) for a toilet trip.
But can I tell you what I hate the most about screen-time for my kids? It’s my complete and utter hypocrisy. My shocking double standards. Because as I’m setting out boundaries for them about how much screen-time is healthy, what types of content is appropriate, what it might be doing to their brains… I am all the while addicted to screens myself.
Being a freelancer I have the very convenient excuse that I need my phone in my hand 16 hours per day because…
I’m working guys, Ok?
But you can’t kid a kidder. My sons know that I’m scrolling through trainers on ASOS while I cook dinner, watching inane Instagram reels as I run their baths, sending my anxiety levels soaring checking BBC news every hour. And although it’s painful for me to admit, I know my phone scrolling disconnects me from them.
I militantly enforce rules around screen time for my kids. No fighting games (might make them murderers one day), no Fortnite (makes kids smash Ipads in rage so I’ve heard), no in-game chat (risk of predatory paedophiles), no adding friends to Xbox games unless I’ve carried out a full MI5 style risk-assessment and am satisfied that they are in fact a nine year old girl from school and not a 47 year old man from Basingstoke. And don’t even mention the idea of having any social media access kids… do you even know what that could do to your developing frontal cortex?
But my own internet safety is yet another hypocrisy. Through my social media I probably reveal way too much in terms of my location, my interests, my political leanings, my friends. My internet footprint is big… and muddy. Recently I’ve started to question more and more how I can expect my boys to value their privacy and security when in all honesty I’m not setting that example to them.
The problem is that we adults are all in too deep now, hooked on the dopamine of watching our likes rack up on that Facebook post we did yesterday, assessing our value in terms of the amount of Instagram followers we have. And like any other addiction, the people around us suffer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched children at football or swimming sessions look up jubilantly at their parents exclaiming “Did you see that Dad? Did you see what I just did?” But of course Dad didn’t see… because he was checking a work email… or looking at the Facebook profile of someone he thinks he maybe went to school with thirty years ago.
For me personally, I’ve decided to at least try to practice what I preach to my boys. That means no phone in the morning before we leave for work and school. No phone scrolling at times when I’ve asked them to come off screens, and definitely no phone at mealtimes or when relaxing in the evening. It’s not easy. Like all addicts, I get twitchy and really want to give in. But if I want them to have childhoods not dominated by technology; I have to make it a team effort.