Look Up - And Get Off The Screens

14/08/2014 17:01 | Updated 20 May 2015

Children on screens

As I drove my two sons up to see their granddad in Manchester for the Bank Holiday weekend, I attempted to get a bit of atmosphere going in the car to delay the inevitable 'Are We Nearly There Yet?' question.

In the past, we've had fun playing Yellow-Car-Punch-No-Returns, which involves the spotter of a yellow vehicle thwacking the non-spotters on the arm. Oh the laughs we had. But no more.

Despite me broadening the game to pink and green cars, the boys didn't once spot one before I did.

And when I looked in my rear view mirror to ascertain the reason for this lack of enthusiasm, I saw why: the nine-year-old was keeping his thumbs busy on his iPod, while the six-year-old was chasing Mario on his DS.

"Their loss," I sulked to myself, before taking the opportunity to blast them with some Status Quo for the rest of the journey. That'll learn 'em!

When we arrived at their granddad's four hours later, I had a stern word in their shell-likes: "Lay off the gadgets this weekend, boys. Your granddad doesn't want to only see the tops of your heads."

But there was no need. Aside from the simple joy of their being no Wi-Fi in my old man's house, nor anywhere in the vicinity, my sons seemed to totally forget they were a part of the Screens Generation and instead started to enjoy themselves in the way I used to enjoy myself when I was their age.

Instead of pestering for computer time, or nagging to go on the Xbox, they made their own entertainment: a couple of hours kicking a ball around the square where I used to kick a ball (much to the annoyance of the neighbours); an hour or so creating a den with an old armchair and a sofa on the waste ground next to my dad's house; another hour playing hide-and-seek around the estate (which, I confess, worried me a little because I barely let them out of my eye-line at home in London).

And then the best bit of all, playing Frustration and Connect 4 with their granddad while he told them stories about what I used to get up to as a kid. Heck, he even taught them how to play Dominoes and the card game, Go Fish.

Not once did my lads ask for a device. Not once did they even hint about missing their computer games.

It was both a joy and a revelation and made me realise how much of an active childhood they are missing out on because of the modern day addiction to screens.

More than several dozen times at home, I have had to order my sons to 'Look up' as I spoke to them.

"Stop staring at that screen, I'm talking to you!"

It has almost become a chant in our house.

But it isn't just them who are guilty of it.

The first thing my wife does when she walks in from work every night – as her children are tearing her coat from her shoulders - is check her emails to see if the people who she left an hour earlier have sent her anything startlingly important, you know, like the outbreak of the Third World War.

And the first thing I do as she and I relax on the sofa in front of Masterchef is to text my mate asking what he thinks of the Invention Test.

We're all guilty of it.

As a homeworker, I can often go a whole working week without talking to a single adult who isn't my wife.

But I converse frequently over text, email and Twitter – a lot of the time with people I've never even met. And often while my wife is talking to me, face-to-top-of-head, so to speak.

We know we're doing it: we just can't stop ourselves. But like smokers trying to quit the deadly weed, we want to. We really, really want to. We've never been more socially connected, but we've never been lonelier.

The 21st Paradox. It's why a brilliant new video called 'Look Up', slating 'antisocial' media, has been viewed 30 million times (and counting).

The clip was created by London writer and director Gary Turk, who posted his film on YouTube. He says social media is actually making us less sociable and more isolated from the outside world.

In the film, Gary says: "I have 422 friends yet I'm lonely. I speak to all of them every day yet none of them really know me.

"The problem I have sits in the spaces between looking into their eyes, or at a name on a screen.

"I took a step back and opened my eyes that this media we call social, is anything but, when we open our computers and it's our doors we shut."

Studies claim Facebook and other social media cause people to become more lonely and experience reduced life-satisfaction.

University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross conducted an experiment where 82 participants filled in surveys each day about their Facebook usage.

The study reported: "The more they used Facebook over two weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time."

For me, the most poignant part of Gary's video comes midway through.

Here, his narrative turns to children, and he says:

"It's not very likely you'll make world's greatest dad if you can't entertain your child without using an iPad.

"When I was a child, I'd never be home. I'd be out with my friends and on our bikes we'd roam.

"I had holes in my trousers and graze up my knees. We'd build our own clubhouse high up in the trees.

"Now the park is so quiet it gives me a chill. I see no children outside and the swings hanging still.

"There's no skipping, no hopscotch, no church and no steeple. We are a generation of idiots, smartphones and dumb people."

Recognise your own kids in that? I certainly recognise mine.

It's why last weekend's visit to my dad's was so special. I didn't just get to see my 76-year-old father, and my sons didn't just get to see the granddad they worship but don't see often enough.

My kids got to look up, look around, and experience a screen-free childhood.

Gary finishes his short film by saying: "So when you're in public and you start to feel alone. Put your hands behind your head and step away from the phone.

"You don't need to stare at your menu or at your contact list, just talk to one another, learn to co-exist.

"Don't waste your life getting caught in the net as when the end comes nothing's worse than regret. "Look up from your phone - shut off your display, stop watching this video, live life the real way."

I'm happy to report, four days on, my sons haven't looked down yet.

More on Parentdish: Are you an iParent?

Suggest a correction