There’s no doubt childhood has been transformed by the digital era and it’s happened fast. It wasn’t so long ago we only had five TV channels to choose between and the DVD player seemed like an arrival from the 25 century.
Social media scare stories do crop up, but the positive side of connected family life rarely gets a look in. For many parents digital technology is a vital part of their survival kit – an hour of iPad-aided tranquillity on a stressful childcare day is like pressing the reset button – for many kids it’s a vital part of their social network.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently said screens are not intrinsically bad for children. The key, as always, is balance. Limited screen time in a life that involves exercise, good sleep and healthy relationships is no bad thing.
“It’s about managing your children’s interactions with the internet, just as you would manage them with the physical world,” says Dr Reenee Singh, chief executive of The Association for Family Therapy and director at The Child and Family Practice.
“As parents we have the authority and that is no different in the digital space. I work with families around setting boundaries that limit a child’s use of social media and apps.”
Digital platforms provide communal spaces where you can, say, shoot your own child off the Rainbow Road Mario Kart track with a tortoise shell. Writer and mother of three Mandy Dineley says: “We’ve had a lot of fun with things like The Wii, online games and our latest virtual reality system, which just brings us all together when it would be so easy for them to slope off to their rooms and do their own thing.”
And, often, kids are much more likely to happily dip into something educational at home if it comes in the form of a gamified app than a paper and pencil.
“When the children were young, we gave them devices to help with their reaction skills and then homework. They used to play on maths and English apps – the times tables apps also came in really handy, especially on long car journeys or holiday trips,” says Dineley.
Now her children are older, social media has made it much easier to keep in touch with them. And there’s often an openness to communication that can be difficult face-to-face, in fact, says Singh, she has found kids often find it easier to express emotions using emojis (for anyone who has seen the Emoji Movie, it’s nice to see them doing something positive for a change). Not to mention the joy of the family WhatsApp group – a never ending virtual Sunday lunch in which your dad is the butt of all the jokes.
For parents the practical possibilities of a fully connected, teched-up home are tantalising: lights that switch off when their children leave a room, shopping lists that update when you shout “Alexa, we’re out of pasta AGAIN”, ovens you can turn on during your commute home…
On the downside, around 57% of messages from your children will involve them asking for a cuppa because they can’t be bothered to get out of bed.