Parents still need to snoop and ration – as they’ve always done
Smart phones can darken childhood and childhood is a world you can never revisit
A woman checks her phone on the opening day of the annual Appleby Horse Fair, in north-west England. For today’s children and young teenagers, the smartphone is just something that has been around for as long as they have. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty
We live in an era, as Voltaire wrote in 1736, of new pleasures and new needs. Most of us would see the smart phone as a manifestation of this in our time.
But anybody under 12 years of age was born into a world in which the smart phone was already exercising its seductive charm.
All you could do on its predecessor, the mobile phone, was text and play snake (apart from making phone calls). Yet, like the smartphone, it exercised a powerful attraction on children, some of whom, I once heard a teacher lament, were able to write text messages while the phone was still in their pocket.
The point I’m trying to make is that for today’s children and young teenagers, the smartphone is just something that has been around for as long as they have been around – or at least for as long as they have been noticing these things.
Most parents don’t buy fully functioning smartphones for infants or toddlers but most, I imagine, hand the phone to said infants and toddlers to play with. So to these children the phone isn’t something to wonder at in itself – what matters is what you can do with it, whether that’s playing Peppa Pig or, later, gossiping about other people.
I doubt if my parents would have given me a smartphone if it had been invented in time for my childhood. I base that on the fact that they banned the News of the World from the house on moral grounds. Being given access to the world’s wickedness via a gadget in my pocket just wouldn’t have happened.
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It’s very difficult to say whether my childhood would have been better or worse for this. I probably wouldn’t have spent as many hours walking in the fields, kicking a ball over the electricity lines in the yard or reading books as I actually did.
Would that have mattered? I can’t tell. The smart phone is so ubiquitous a part of our lives now that it’s impossible even in imagination to visualise what a childhood would be without one.
I liked walking in the fields but as a child I would have probably traded the experience for a smartphone any day.
I would have missed out on boredom. That might not seem to be such a bad thing but without a capacity for boredom you are completely at the mercy of whoever wants to sell you stuff to help you to avoid it. Also, it’s harder to do prolonged work or study without a toleration for boredom. And I think it’s hard for relationships of any kind to flourish if all concerned are unable to accept the periods of boredom involved.
If I had encountered the dark side of the Internet, that would have impinged on my childhood also. The point is often made that school bullying in today’s era continues after you get home and shut the front door behind you. And would I have been the bullied or the bully in an electronic world?
Smartphones can darken childhood and childhood is a world you can never go back to after you’ve left. So parents need to be vigilant about protecting the childhood of sons and daughters who have them.
If it existed, if I’d had one, I wouldn’t have wanted my parents to keep tabs on what I was seeing or doing on the phone; but if they did they would be right and I would be less likely to have my childhood spoiled by that dark side.
I also wouldn’t have wanted my parents to ration my phone use but they would been right to do that too. Then I could still experience boredom and walking in the fields and reading long books.
Like the subject of Voltaires’ poem, Man of the World, I wouldn’t want to go back to a time when these “new” pleasures didn’t exist.It is more a matter of parents being willing to make themselves unpopular by snooping and rationing – just like parents have always done.
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– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).