Our children are growing up with sophisticated technology embedded in their daily lives in a way that our parents couldn't have begun to contemplate when we were kids. I can still remember how sophisticated the staccato, stuttering sound of the dial-up internet seemed when it first arrived in our house in the late nineties, and how proud I was of the bulky 'word processor' (so named because that was all it did) that I bought to take to university.
But these days, even for very young children, instant technology at their fingertips is just the norm. My pre-schooler wants me to take quick videos on my phone of her doing dance routines and watch them back immediately. She doesn't want to watch something on 'normal Cbeebies' she requests a specific program from Netflix, and she knows we don't need to visit the supermarket because the 'shopping man' will deliver our groceries straight to the door. Sometimes I worry how this lifestyle of technology-enabled instant gratification will affect her and her brother in the long-term. Will they be less willing to roll their sleeves up and work hard, and will they display less patience when it comes to achievements and rewards?
We were sitting around the kitchen table one Saturday morning recently trying to think of ways to entertain ourselves that day, when my husband started using voice search to find local activities. After hearing him ask his phone a multitude of questions all beginning with "OK, Google..." my 3 year old daughter very earnestly leaned over and asked the device in his hand; "can I get down please, Google?". My first thought was how glad I was that neither of our parents had witnessed it! She had finished her Rice Krispies, so Google said yes....
There has been a lot of research into the damaging effects of too much screen time on children - it can lead to stress, anxiety, and sleep and behavioural disorders. But we didn't really need research to tell us that sitting passively for hours on end, bombarded by chaotic sensory stimulation isn't particularly good for us. Equally there is a lot of concern about the effect of social networking sites on pre-teens and teens. It can fuel young people's insecurities and sense of isolation at a time when they are most vulnerable. All of this seems like just one more thing to worry about as a parent.
But I think the most important thing is simply to use logic and personal experience when it comes to the use of technology with our children. We all know how we feel mentally when we've been hunched over the screen of our smart phone for a long period of time flicking passively between apps and peering at tiny text. And we know how we feel after we've exercised in the fresh air, after we've had a long, relaxed lunch with friends, helped out with a community project or spent time absorbed in producing something creative. We need to make sure that our children have many more experiences that lead to these positive, uplifting emotions so that they understand what really makes them feel happy, confident and positively engaged with the world around them. Then when they are using social media, video games, TV and other forms of technology (which they absolutely should in moderation), hopefully they will do so with a healthy sense of perspective.
Equally I think it's vital that we accept and embrace technology as parents. If we bury our heads in the sand and wring our hands about how times have changed, we will alienate our children. The better we understand the technology they are using, the better equipped we are to talk to them on their level, educate them and influence them about its use.
The main message I want to send to my kids is that technology should be a tool we use to make our real lives easier and more enjoyable, but it shouldn't be a lifestyle in itself. Happy memories are only created from what we do in the real world.