25/07/2014 07:40 BST | Updated 23/09/2014 06:59 BST

Babysitting an Addict


Last night I was asked to babysit an addict. I'll admit, I was an addict too at the age of five. But getting high off sherbert straws and chunks of Hubba Bubba gum was something I'd eventually overcome. The sad truth, I realised, is that Lucy's addiction will only grow stronger over time. A dark, everlasting screen stands before her.

At 7pm I arrive next door and am led into the playroom where a child sits quietly on a sofa. On one hand, a small thumb is lost between Bolognese smudged lips. The other hand swipes frantically away at an iPad. Well isn't she just cute as punch!

"Say Hello to Deborah," Lucy's mummy insists. Instilling good manners - I like that. But instead I am met with silence. Pure absorption in the game. "Ahem!" Mummy clears her throat. "Hi Debwah," the pink onesie clad infant mumbles nonchalantly as those big blue eyes remain glued on her lap. "Mummy is going to go and grab her car keys and then we will switch off the iPad for the night, do you hear?" Silence again.

Mummy walks out of the room and I perch next to Lucy. She continues to suck and swipe, unaware of my presence. I realise that my rucksack bulging with old poetry books, a Minnie Mouse puzzle and a tin of Hama Beads, which I dug out of the loft, is a pointless gesture. And I can't help feeling slightly disappointed.

"What are you playing, Lucy?" Silence. I peer over and notice Temple Run. Her score is ludicrous - quadruple what I could ever achieve. I watch in awe as this little person controls a virtual man swinging through ropes and snatching gold coins. When I was five the only gold coins I desired were the milk chocolate variety.

"Come on Lucy, that's enough. You've been playing all evening." Mummy is back and tries to take the screen from her daughter's grip. There is a quick tug of war and then, all of a sudden, a piercing scream erupts in the room.

Ten minutes later, Lucy has finally stopped crying, shouting and biting (yes, she tried to bite Mummy's arm). The front door slams and we are left alone. I suggest we try my puzzle? No. The Hama Beads? No. Is that a phone in my bag? Yes. Does it have any games? Yes. Wait, No! Within a second she has snatched my iPhone and wriggles away as I try to grab it back.

Lucy runs around the room like her pigtails are on fire, frantically tapping numbers in an attempt to figure out my passcode and I am scared she is about to trigger the master lock. Finally I prise it from her chewed fingertips. Three, two, one: the ear-splitting yell resumes.

Now, on the one hand, how a five-year-old child even knows what a mobile phone is is beyond me. I had one of those Fisher Price chatter phones back in the day, but this helped me learn to communicate. I sat talking to my imaginary friend for hours (a hedgehog called Scruffy, don't ask). Isn't this what kids should be doing? Learning to converse, to be personable, polite, respectful of one's elders, and ultimately begin the training process in how to avoid becoming such a godforsaken brat?

But despite the fact I am slightly impressed by her talent in the twenty-first century realm of technology (I consider a world of mini Mark Zuckerbergs, Pixar animation that's even more realistic, memory chips inserted in the brain and other Black Mirror enchantments) this sentiment is immediately revoked when I take her upstairs to bed.

I soon learn that Lucy can't even take out her own hair-ties without assistance or turn the tap on to brush her teeth with Peppa Pig toothpaste, despite earning enough gold coins that hey, why not retire now? Five can be the new sixty-five.

The truth is that childhood should be an important phase to learn about oneself and the people around you, while expanding your mind and attention spans through playful exploration. Little imagination, creativity or skill goes into surfing the web, watching mindless YouTube videos, using social media and playing virtual games.

Encourage your little ones to play a board game with a friend not a robot - to learn how to win and how to lose. To read a book with inspiring illustrations - not just scan BuzzFeed lists and mindless GIFs. To write intelligently with proper grammar and accurate spelling - not just cramming thoughts into a 140-character tweet.

NHS figures recently revealed a decline in the number of children admitted to hospital over the past ten years for injuries such as falling off their bike or out of a tree. This is directly correlated with a dramatic surge in the number of youngsters who suffer from eyestrain or muscle ache as a result of extreme computer usage. Experts have suggested that this phenomenon is the result of today's parents being scared to let their children out of their sight and, in some cases, the house.

Yes the world might not be the "same as it once was". Yes the real world is becoming "scarier" amidst a media frenzy of danger and threats lurking behind the front door. But you are stunting your child's potential if you don't encourage them to shut the laptop lid and engage with reality.

Phones should be kept away from the dinner table, and talking, if only for a few minutes, about one's day is a must. Communication shall not die. We are social beings and the most valuable relationships are those forged in the physical and emotional sense, don't be blinded by the bright facade of your screen.

One day these battery babies will look back at the time they played in the field for hours returning home with bruised knees, rather than the time they failed to beat their friend's high score on Flappy Bird, gaining only a bruised ego.