How to coax your children off their screens and into the real world

Peter Cosgrove has written a book called Family Fun Unplugged which does what it says on the tin

‘I think kids really struggle with the idea of being bored these days.’ Photograph: iStock

‘I think kids really struggle with the idea of being bored these days.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Hell is other people, right? Well, try being an 11-year-old at a family function without access to a smartphone or tablet. At a gathering recently, my friend’s young son, deprived of wifi, wandered about listless and despondent. He was in the throes of Snapchat cold turkey.

“How about we try have a conversation?” I suggested.

He looked at me as if I had invited him to try the Nutcracker out in the middle the room, wearing a chicken costume.

I happened to have a review copy of Peter Cosgrove’s Family Fun Unplugged on my person, which was just as well. Within minutes, my friend’s son was playing tricks on great-aunts, attempting head-scratchers with older cousins, and playing a game of Would You Rather with his granny (“Would you rather travel backwards or forwards in time?” became the afternoon’s burning topic).

“I find that when a kid gets to fool an adult, they feel amazing,” says Cosgrove. “There’s nothing like feeling like the smartest person in the room. Grandparents seem to like the book in particular, as the only time they ever see their grandkids, they seem to be on the phone.”

As one of 11 children who spent many a summer holiday staring out into the Carlingford rain, Cosgrove recalls a childhood packed with homespun games, ideas and challenges: “You really had to work out your own fun,” he says. “Working on the book really helped me to remember all that, and the book in turn has become a sort of nostalgic hark back to childhood.”

Certainly, Family Fun Unplugged, and its predecessor, Fun Unplugged, should remind parents of simpler days of yore, recalling as it does the sort of brilliantly, weirdly random conversations that only boredom can ignite.

“I think kids really struggle with the idea of being bored these days,” says Cosgrove. “The best sort of creativity comes about when you’re not thinking of anything else. It’s funny how meditation and mindfulness have become so popular, given that it’s something that we did naturally years ago. Back then, we walked home through fields from school without a phone, and you just thought. Kids don’t have enough time to be disconnected.

“If you look at a child who is scrolling without thinking on social media, they’re rarely smiling. They are passively staring,” adds Cosgrove. “With the book, a few kids will start playing some of the games, and then the next thing they’re enthusiastic, shouting and competitive. As a parent, you really do have to provide them with a better alternative [to screens].”

No off-time

He has a point: owing to the 24-7 nature of smartphones and social media, there is little off-time for youngsters with access to screens. Earlier this month some unsettling findings came to light, thanks to the 2018 annual report of CyberSafeIreland. It states that 92 per cent of Irish children aged eight to 13 own some sort of smart device, from games consoles and tablets to laptops and smartphones. Eighty-three per cent of eight-year-olds own one device, and 98 per cent of 12-year-olds.

The report estimates that Irish children spend the equivalent of 61 days a year online, while 40 per cent of kids talk to someone online they don’t know in real life.

The numbers come hot on the heels of another research report released earlier this month by the HSE. According to it, the number of people discharged from hospital with a principal diagnosis of anxiety has doubled in the past 10 years, and the number of under-16s receiving the diagnosis has more than tripled over the period. In the under-16s category, 74 children were discharged from hospital with anxiety; a marked increase from 22 cases in 2008.

Peter Cosgrove: ‘The key jobs in the future will be ones where face-to-face contact is key.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Peter Cosgrove: ‘The key jobs in the future will be ones where face-to-face contact is key.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“Ask any child psychologist and there is no doubt that screens and phones are not helping in this regard,” says Cosgrove. “A perfect example is when children go on social media. They know there’s a conversation happening and when they’re not online, they’re not there. There’s a real hum of anxiety relating to that. When we left school as children, that was pretty much it until the next day.”

Cosgrave isn’t attempting to solve the ills of a modern tech-heavy society, although Family Fun Unplugged is designed to encourage kids to find their own device-free fun. There is more to it than that; the book also aims to promote the sort of life skills that today’s device-obsessed children could well be losing out on.

Precarious labour

As a Future of Work expert, Cosgrove notes that while technology may seem more friend than foe to little ones, in the workplace things could end up being more precarious than we might think thanks to the advent of robots and technology.

Cosgrove suggests that when it comes to children, it helps to emphasise the key people skills that are less likely to be taken over by technology in the future. Communication, influencing, empathy and humour will thwart the robots in the future workplace – and no amount of Minecraft is ever likely to teach these.

“It’s a scary time for the world of work, and lots of process-driven jobs, like manufacturing or even accounting, will be taken over by AI,” says Cosgrove. “At Harvard, once they opened up their online education [programme], more people signed up to online courses than ever actually went to Harvard.

“The key jobs in the future will be ones where face-to-face contact is key,” he adds. “You could go into a shop and buy from a robot, certainly, but being able to talk to someone and influence someone is the real skill. Any sales job isn’t going to be threatened, as persuasion and influence isn’t going away. Technology will do the hard stuff, which is a good thing: a robot doing surgeon isn’t likely to have a shaky hand, or have had a big night the night before. And there will be lots of jobs there that we haven’t even invented yet.”

Yet before all of that, the question looms large: will smartphones and social media soon plateau for youngsters, or will they become absolutely ubiquitous in the future?

“They’re here to stay,” says Cosgrove. “What is likely to happen is similar to the climate change movement driven by kids, in that those kids feel we’ve not done our job properly as adults [in protecting the environment]. Kids are likely to see this with society and technology in the future.

“It’s funny. Someone said to me that the only groups who call their customers users are technology companies and drug dealers,” he adds. “We are trying to fight screen addiction, but there are 500 people in Silicon Valley whose job it is to get you addicted again. That will be the challenge of the next generation – when they’re aware of its addictive properties, that’s when they’ll realise they’ve been sold a pup.”

Family Fun Unplugged by Peter Cosgrove is published by Penguin Ireland and is out now

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