January has become a busy time of year for me. In addition to our New Year resolutions, and resetting our expectations and relationships with food, exercise, spending and alcohol, the personal use of technology is now increasingly part of that list of behaviours that we all want to manage better. January becomes not just a dry month, a return to the gym, and plates of kale and broccoli, but the month in which a trial separation from the smartphone may be on the to-do list. We are now in the age of the digital detox, whereby the issue of consumption is replacing the concern of e-safety.
Of course it is entirely possible that this is also a product of the winter holiday for families. This period combines more time together and the giving of gifts, which will increasingly be a tablet, smartphone, game or games console. The holiday time with family, partners or friends over Christmas is disrupted by exciting new technologies to the fold. With this comes the likelihood that a new device or game will draw time and attention away from shared activities, and foster solitary interactions with the device. What is perhaps most astonishing is that even for families who are lucky enough to go away for Christmas, to wonderful mountainous or warm locations, the lure of connection and interaction with a device dwarfs the pleasures of such escapes.
However, by January the calls begin, and parents ask for help in finding their lost child, as if they had followed the Pied Piper into the mountainside, once that box were opened.
But more and more, I hear from parents and schools that they are worried not just about the impact of new technologies on the development of young people, but on the very issue of how to get them to switch off, or even put the smartphone down. The recent survey from Action for Children (https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/news-and-opinion/latest-news/2016/january/unplugging-from-technology/) suggests that parents struggle to manage their children's screen time more than they do trying to get them to eat healthily, go to bed or do homework. Almost a quarter struggle with screen time, though I suspect this is quite an underestimation of the struggles in many families. Of course it also means that 75% feel they can manage their children's use of devices, and one message that often fails to emerge is how some parents manage this issue more confidently; what can we learn from those families where it is less of a problem. But as tablets get cheaper and cheaper, and home broadband a utility no different from electricity or water, do we need to make it easier for parents to feel able to manage use and consumption of digital media, before it becomes unmanageable?
I was reminded how little we support parents in this area recently, when a parent described how they had set the timer on the home router to switch off the WiFi at 10.30pm. A simple, digital 'lights out' limit became a standard part of home life. Whilst mobile connections were still possible, the lack of bandwidth seriously restricted the young person's pleasure in using their devices late at night, and the bitter pill that it was time to sleep a little easier to swallow. Yet how many routers that are provided by ISPs make it easy for a parent so to set such a time limit? How many tablets have easy to use apps that allow parents to set a time limit for their use? It is probably far easier for a parent to record television programmes than to control the access to the internet.
There has been progress in recent years in helping parents limit children's accidental or intentional access to disturbing or adult content online. The move to having filters for such content switched on by default, such that any family could feel better protected without having to have high level technical skills, may well protect the more vulnerable. But for too long now the fascination with content and conduct in e-safety has marginalised the challenges of use and consumption. And this latest survey from Action for Children does echo clinical experience and that we need strategies that enable parents to easily manage use when they wish to, and not feel deskilled or incapable of managing this aspect of every child's life today.
Adult anxieties about their own use of devices underpins some of the concerns. But most adults still have memories and experience of a life before mobile devices, and of happy, immersive experiences, at a concert, party or walk where the full range of senses could take in the magnitude of the experience, without fear trying to capture the experience with a device to 'share'. And the skill of learning to switch off, to have that immersive moment free of devise is something many parents want for their children.
And the technical challenge of achieving that should be no greater than needed when using a microwave oven or recording a television programme.