You can’t blame Jamie Oliver for being worried. As the father of Poppy, 11, Daisy, 10, Petal, four, and Buddy, three, he really needs some long-term tech ground rules in his house. So he announced last week that he has banned his eldest daughters from using a mobile phone or any kind of social media. “I found out my two eldest girls had set up Instagram accounts in secret, which I wasn’t happy about and soon put a stop to,” he said. “Poppy is the only girl in her class without a mobile. It may sound harsh, but I do worry about the bullying that can go on with these sites.”
Oliver’s fears are certainly exacerbated by his celebrity status. But they are shared by many parents who, faced with mixed messages about the dangers and benefits of technology, choose simply to ban whatever they can for as long as they can. It doesn’t help that there is often a hypocritical element to all this for modern parents. Oliver announced the birth of both of his younger children to his 3.6 million Twitter followers. If we spend hours on Facebook and Pinterest – in full view of our children – how can we expect them not to go on Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin, Friv or Minecraft as soon as they can wield a mouse?
Sara Bran is from north London and writes on creativity and parenting. She has two daughters, Mia, seven, and Lily, 17. “I don’t think ‘the internet’ is taught well in school,” she said. “It is only mentioned to children in the context of safety and danger. It needs to be broken down into a) health issues – eyesight, sitting still for long periods of time, brain plasticity and creativity; b) intellectual issues about where information comes from and the ability to think independently; and c) social media and ideas about empathy, friendship, bullying, communication and relationships.”
She says that Lily worries a lot for her little sister and feels there has been a huge change in internet use and access in the last few years: “When Lily was seven, there was one central computer in our house that we all used. Now smartphones mean that all of us are in our own private worlds, having private relationships with the internet and social media. At 17, she doesn’t consider herself a digital native, but her younger sister at seven is completely immersed.”
Stay-at-home dad Mark Bryce, who blogs at sonnyandluca.co.uk, is from Manchester. His two boys are three and four, so their internet use is rare and supervised but he already worries: “We tend to stick with CBeebies but when we’ve occasionally used other sites, particularly YouTube, it’s frightening how quickly they can stumble across other material just by clicking on links. Once I took a phone call and within a few minutes they were watching something quite violent – and that was only a couple of clicks away from the cartoon I’d left them viewing.”
The arguments against are well-rehearsed. A recent report for Public Health England concluded that “children who spend more time on computers, watching TV and playing video games tend to experience higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression”.
Then there’s the sedentary effect: more than 70% of young people do not undertake the recommended one hour of physical activity a day. Earlier this year the Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow found a correlation between viewing television for longer than three hours a day (from age five) and “conduct disorder”.
The safety issue is an equal concern. Last month Peter Davies, chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceops), said that “half of all child sexual exploitation takes place on social networks. Facebook is a major one, but not the only one”. Last year the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was developing technology to link children’s accounts to those of their parents. At the moment, no under 13s are allowed on the site. The most recent report on Facebook use [Consumer Reports 2011] found that “of the 20 million minors who use Facebook, 7.5 million were younger than 13 and more than five million were younger than 10″.
But as long as you manage and intervene sensibly, technology has so much to offer, argues Heather Ticheli, a London-based home educator and campaigner for Mothers At Home Matter. She has two boys aged four and eight and sees technology as a life-saver: “I wouldn’t want to home educate without screens. Particularly because tech opens up the world to my dyslexic son in a way that books just can’t.”
This generation of parents also realises that it’s likely that the ability to programme, use code, vlog and blog is as essential to the current cohort of children as a degree was in times gone by. The excitement about Raspberry Pi, the £30 credit-card-size mini PC that plugs into a TV and keyboard – “unlocking a new generation of programmers” – is built on this feeling.
“There are so many amazing apps, from phonics and maths to video blogging and stop-motion animation,” Ticheli adds. “We watch documentaries and videos on YouTube. We can use my smartphone to find the answers to the barrage of random questions my children think of while we are stuck in traffic on the bus.”
Parents are fighting back by personally policing their children’s use – the only way you can really know what’s going on. With older children, you need to be up close and personal with their online use, says Tanya Barrow, who writes the award-winning blog Mummy Barrow. She lives in Fleet, Hampshire, with two girls aged 14 and 19 and an 18-year-old son.
“There should be supervision until you know that your children are safe and know what they are doing,’ she said. “Is their profile locked down? Who can see their pictures? What are they sharing? Once you know that your child understands they should not be posting home addresses and so on, then maybe the supervision can be lessened. It is all about talking and understanding. I follow them all on Twitter and am friends with them on Facebook. Yes, I know my comments get deleted. And I am not allowed to ‘like’ statuses on Facebook. But at least they know I know what they are up to.”
Her children all had phones from the age of 10, but “for use in emergencies – not smartphones”. She adds: “I am not too scared about my children being bullied online, we have that conversation a lot and are very open about it and they would talk to me if this happened.
“But we heard of an incident where a friend had added a young lad on Facebook and had been chatting to him for a few months. Just chatting, nothing sinister. But it transpired he was not a young lad and had been biding time and gaining her trust, looking through her photos on Facebook and those of her friends. They were contacted by another worried parent who had called Ceop [the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre] and this person was duly blocked.
“That sort of thing terrifies me. Children are trusting and I don’t want to change that and make them suspicious of everybody, but it is a very fine line.”
Jennifer Howze, co-founder of online community BritMums and mother of a nine-year-old daughter and 14-year-old stepson, says this is perhaps the hottest topic for parents: “Many parents take a stepped approach. Kids first get a phone with very few credits that they can only use to call home in emergencies, then they get one with more credits that they can use to call a close circle of family and friends, then they’re allowed to use their own allowance or earnings to add credit to use it with more people. A big concern is that the phone makes them a target for mugging by other kids.”
She adds: “I’m most concerned about appropriate use of social media. It’s so easy when you’re just learning how to use social media to overshare, say something that you shouldn’t, even take a picture and send it to a boyfriend and girlfriend that gets shared with others.
“They don’t comprehend the repercussions or foresee the issues that might develop. I think every parent also worries that their child might be the one bullying or not being nice to others online. Any way you can have those conversations are good. The earlier, the better.”
Perhaps the worst thing for this generation of busy and over-worked parents, often tech overusers themselves, is that this is one more thing to drive us all apart.
“I worry that screen time will become the norm rather than one of a variety of activities, and also the lack of exercise that will result from it,” Bryce said. “Most of all though I worry that it will become something that comes between them and me as they grow older. I know it’s only natural for kids to seek independence and time away from their parents but I can’t help but feel this inevitable eventuality will only be hastened by the advent of so much time in front of a screen.
“On a positive note, I have utilised their obsession in order to get vegetables into their diet. I now suggest they do something without a screen and then flick carrots into their gaping, unbelieving open mouths.