I went out for lunch with the kids last weekend. On the table next to us were a group of children, young adolescents and four adults. There must have been eleven of them in total, out for what I think was a family lunch. At one point, ALL of them were on a device. Their conversations were largely based on what they were looking at on each other's screens. It was quite extraordinary. And arguably I should have been minding my own business and not tutting like an octogenarian. But I was.
So I had to ask myself, why? Why was I fundamentally, deeply uncomfortable with what I was seeing?
Every generation bemoans the habits of the next. My parents couldn't understand my obsession with the mesmerising, melodic twangs of George Harrison's guitar, and no doubt my grandparents were more than a little cynical about my parents' passion for Swing, jazz and mambo. An inability to identify with something you haven't grown up with is natural. It marks the end of a journey, the setting of ways and the very human experience of being wary of what we don't know.
The digital age forces every parent to confront some uncomfortable truths. We are not the tech generation. We weren't born with iPads in our hands and our first language wasn't steeped in ones and zeros. As self appointed guardians of our children's hearts and minds, this binary new world frightens us because on some level we don't understand it, and that's not helped by the lack of information on what the potential long term effects screen time might mean for our children.
To make matters worse, experts have begun to warn us that excessive screen time is not just a peripheral issue, but one which affects a child's development, and their mental health. In 2013, Public Health England concluded that too much screen time was leading to children developing a sedentary lifestyle, and increasing their levels of anxiety.
So it's only natural that as parents we feel concerned when we see children, including our own, finding new ways to integrate tech further into their every day lives. That is perhaps part of the reason why I looked on disapprovingly at the family next to us that afternoon. And yet, something else about that experience affected me deeply.
When televisions came around and they were suddenly available on a mass scale, like many parents during that era, my mother and father also tried to limit the amount of time I sat in front of the 'box', so it's easy to put down current concerns about tech consumption as fuddy duddy and just 'part of a pattern'. The truth is more complicated.
As tech becomes a form of baby sitting whilst parents make meals or snatch a few hours at home to work, children are spending more time than any other generation before it, in front of a screen. In order to counter the growing stigma around iPads and PCs replacing almost all forms of play, parents have learned to become more discerning about what their children access online. Educational games have become hugely popular with parents, and platforms like Minecraft which offer nuanced and sophisticated play, whilst offering social interaction both online and off are deemed less 'dangerous'. Despite this, experts are still suggesting we limit all screen time for kids.
And the message is getting through. June 25th saw the 3rd National Unplugging Day take place - an event which invites families to make time to step away from the computer, phone and tablet and find alternative ways to entertain and play as a unit. Myself and the Zeamu team took a Time Out from tech, and went with our respective families to outdoor events, listened to live music and played sports. It felt good to be disconnected from the constant buzz of the internet's optic fibres. The Zeamus even released an acoustic version of one of their pop songs to celebrate the day and we didn't post, tweet or text for 24 hours. In a world where we are pressured, subconsciously at least, to stay switched on around the clock, an occasional break from the demands of an increasingly digital lifestyle worked wonders, not just for my children's sanity, but for mine as well.
Please don't get me wrong. I think tech can be an amazing force for good. Zeamu would not be reaching thousands of children all looking to be empowered by music they can relate to without the internet and we couldn't produce our songs without it, either. But just as we must be discerning about the kinds of choices we make for our children, we must also balance those choices with what we know already, to make sure our children grow up to be strong, independent and happy people who can make the best possible choices for themselves when we are no longer around to protect them.