Are your kids addicted to their gadgets? Is it time for a digital detox?

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93770-20150125narrowDoes your home provide a perfect habitat for the Greater-Spotted-Xbox? A breeding ground for the thriving i-Pad Mini? In our home, these wonderful little creatures are reproducing like never before…Unlike their forefathers, the ZX Spectrum or the Commodore 64 (who were quite content to wake slowly and spend much of their day asleep) The Gadgets of today require the near constant attention of their owners…they draw us in and crave our company. They do not like boundaries and will sneak, unnoticed into cars, toilets and restaurants given half the chance. (In some corners of the globe The Gadget IS the toilet – if you haven’t seen it check out the iPotty from CTA Digital!). Their possessive nature means they, very quickly, form strong and lasting bonds with their owners, who, without realising soon become addicted to their constant call for company…

Children and young people are particularly susceptible to the calls of The Gadget and, as parents, we are now facing an increasingly difficult battle to ensure that whilst our offspring care and nurture their Gadgets they do not become slaves, attending to their every need in every waking hour! We are fighting hard to ensure our little soldiers do not disappear into a virtual habitat, never to be seen again! Today’s connected-generation are most certainly at risk of over-exposure to The Gadget and this new friendship threatens to change the shape of ‘childhood’ forever. We have a battle on our hands.

163619-20150125Last week, I went to war against the miners, car thieves and lego super heroes that fight for my children’s attention on a daily basis. I persuaded Matthew, my husband, to join my crusade (once I’d got his attention away from his -Mac) and this week we introduced ‘iPad and iSpy Days’…Popular I was not.

The rules are simple…On i-Pad Days, The Gadgets, can join our family and live amongst us, roaming as they do, from room to room… but, every other day, The Gadgets must be allowed to rest…and, if total boredom prevails then there is..of course, always i-Spy!

Don’t get me wrong, i am a BIG fan of The Gadget, I am usually amongst the first to offer a home to each new species, I can see their genuine value and LOVE sharing this with my boys and the children we teach…The Gadget brings us global connectivity and limitless opportunity…Just this week I saw, first hand, the way they can improve dexterity….All three of our boys can now wee ‘no handed’ and, at the same time, play darts and score a triple 20! Granted, it’s a skill I didn’t have as a child but, I have a feeling that, if left to their own devices (literally!) this list of dubious skills would increase…whilst their ability to exist ‘unconnected’ would plummet!

To me, it is about finding a balance. I don’t think I’m alone.

I have been fortunate enough to work with Jim Sells and the team at The UK’s National Literacy Trust and they recently reported that over 3/4’s of our children now have access to touch screen devises at home. 73% to be precise! This figure is rising at a rate faster you can drive a getaway car in Grand Theft Auto! The Gadget is thriving. According to  ‘Digital Predictions 2014‘ from Deloitte, our annual spend on The Gadget has increased FIVE-FOLD since 1999, rising from $150 billion to a staggering $800 billion. This in itself, isn’t a bad thing…but, the tragedy of this evolution is that this ‘technological takeover’ has unfortunately coincided with a drastic reduction in the habitat of our ‘outdoor play’.  As parents we worry constantly about the lure of The Gadget, but, at the same time, we have never been more afraid to let our children ‘out’.

Jan Cosgrove, National Secretary for Fair Play for Children, describes a ‘catastrophic loss of safe play spaces’ as a result of the increase in cars on our residential streets. Their survey found that the top three ‘play places’ of our generation were the ‘fields, woods and streets’ whilst today’s connected-generation list the park, garden and home as their primary stomping ground. Whilst their virtual world has expanded beyond recognition, to the very edge of our imaginations, their ‘real world’ is teetering on the verge of extinction…

IMG_8201But all is not lost! The appetite for adventure and fun still remains amongst young owners of The Gadgets! A recent poll of nearly 3,000 parents and children by Eureka Children’s Museum in West Yorkshire found 81% of children prefer playing outside to watching TV. My own boys are the same they LOVE being outside. They climb (too high), they cycle (too fast) and they love to explore! I am determined that our crazy mud monkeys keep that sense of adventure and. most importantly, keep a balance in their lives. Yes, I worry every time they race out of the front door. I worry about the strangers they encounter and the way they strike up a conversation… I worry when I see them paddle off in their kayaks or find them swinging down a home-made zip wire from the top of a tree…but, that free spirit in me can’t help but smile. Their rosy cheeks and muddy knees take me back to the carefree, crazy, risk-filled days of my  childhood. We built dens on the ‘out of bounds’ land of the Ministry of Defence. We grew up sharing our ‘playground’ with the British Army. Collecting their spent bullets and tunnelling in the back of their sand targets.  We played in streams and swam in rivers. We survived.

Cigarettes come with a health warning. Even the packaging of our food is decorated with traffic lights telling us when ‘enough is enough’ but, as yet, there is no such health warning in regards to time spent with ‘The Gadget’.  How many hours do your children spend in its company? I’d love to know.  How much is enough? How much is too much?

IMG_5706Dr Larry Rosen, recognised as an international expert in the psychology of technology, suggests a 1:5 ratio for children. In other words for every hour they spend with their gadgets they should spend 5 doing something outside of the virtual world. For pre-teens he recognises the increase in usage but warns against losing a 50:50 balance.  But a study undertaken by the University of Maryland found that, when trying to give up their Gadgets for 24hours, four out of five students failed the challenge! They reported severe cravings, anxiety attacks and depression.  They lost their social compass and struggled to find their way through the day.

As a parent I am trying desperately to find a way to ‘lay the foundations’ that will still give our kids access the incredible virtual world at their fingertips but also time for their REAL friends, for playing outside, for real-world communication and thinking skills …heavens, even time to be bored. Our children need time for day dreaming, for mind wandering…their brains need a break from the constant demands of The Gadget… And I don’t want a daily battle.  I know too from talking to my friends that once The Gadget has taken the upper-hand it is virtually impossible to tame it and encourage it back into captivity for evenpart of each week. As parents of the young i-Generation we need to help them find that balance…and maintain it…

…We have survived our first week of ‘i-Spy and i-Pad’ -one day on and one day off.. and no one has died.  No one called Childline. No one left home! Yes they pleaded, they cajoled and bargained but when they had ‘nothing in the world to do’ I offered them the chance to play i-Spy with mum…and they soon something a whole lot more entertaining to get on with! They played outside…they played inside…they wrecked the kitchen making smoothies and (be impressed!) they READ (not because they HAD to but because they WANTED to!)  On our second ‘i-Spy day’ Callum asked twice if he could ‘just go online for a few minutes’ and after being told ‘yes, but tomorrow’ he shrugged his shoulders, rolled his eyes and concluded ‘Well, we might as well go and play something together then Jack’ and off they stomped to play a game of (real life) darts – together! Granted they ended up fighting, Jack threw a dart into his chair and I had to eventually ban the missiles and bring out the lego but…they survived. And so did I.  Just. My virtual babysitters, The Gadgets, got a well-earned rest and, when they returned the next day, we were all happy to see each other.

I am hopeful that our crazy family can co-exist happily with the various species of The Gadget… I am sure that our lives are all the richer for having them live within our home…I’d certainly miss them if they moved out..but, that said, I know they were on the verge of a coup. They were close to a take-over. They had become my nemesis.  It seems that a gaggle of Gadgets can very quickly oust a parent and try the patience of our most saintly.  These little creatures need to be properly managed if the eco-system that is home is to retain some degree of sanity.

We’ll see how it goes..but, for now, the kids are all outside. Cal is playing football with his friends, Jack (always just a step away from A and E) is up a tree and Thomas, is out chatting to our neighbour… A small but positive victory for parent-kind!

But…me…well, I’m on my gadget… so time to power down and get the plasters and bandages ready…