As an English teacher, I frequently meet parents who ask my opinion on how they can assist their child in their learning. One of the most popular questions that I am asked, concerns the amount of screen time their child should be allowed each day. Many parents will often state, ‘Of course if they weren’t spending so much time on their laptop or phone each day, they would be able to improve their grades.” I’ve met other parents who tell me that their child is ‘banned’ from any form of social media until they become an adult.
My eleven-year-old daughter is about to go to a school where parents are told that screens must not be allowed after 7pm. Surely, as a teacher, I should be part of this viewpoint that a child’s time on the internet should be strictly limited and policed by their parents? You couldn’t be further from the truth. Since my children have been small, they have both been allowed to go on the internet as much as they like. My daughter learnt to read from loving karaoke on YouTube. She has used Snapchat, Musically and is now firmly into Instagram. She has a laptop, an I-phone and speaks to her friends on FaceTime. My son is autistic and loves Dr Who. Enabling him access to the internet also taught him to read because he wanted to learn more about the doctor and his historic and scientific background. Why then, do I believe that this does not negatively impact their lives? Why am I such an advocate of allowing them to do as they want? Why don’t I make rules and regulations about screen time?
The answer is quite simple. I believe that if you make something banned to your children, then they grow up seeing something forbidden as something to crave desperately. I’ve believed this since my children were small and first exposed to food. As they grew up, I allowed them to have anything they wanted to eat. Nothing was rationed or restricted. Likewise, there were no sweet or chocolate ‘treats’. I had a friend who rationed sweets for her children and only allowed them a small bag once a month. One day I had bought some Easter eggs for her children and mine. The difference between our children, was that her children instantly wolfed down the chocolate, whereas my children said they would wait until later when they were hungry. In a way I was treating them in this way because I believed they had the intelligence to make their own choices. Thus, they appreciate that they are given this privilege and don’t take it for granted.
I grew up in the seventies when the television was the main technological cause of ‘corruption’ on children; the bête noire of parents. My mother restricted my television viewing. For years ATV was banned, as she believed it stood for American Television Channel. As a result, I went through a period as an adult, of having the television on permanently, just because I could. I was well into my forties before I realised that it was not this amazing holy grail that she had led me to believe.
I believe that the benefits of the internet for my children far outweigh the downsides. They have used it as a stimulus to discover hobbies away from technology. Watching children demonstrating cookery skills on YouTube, inspired my daughter’s latest hobby of baking. To my autistic son, the internet has allowed him to take on the persona of ‘Bill Whovian’ and become far more articulate and confident. They both love reading books and the internet has enabled them to discover books of their preferred genre, as well as try others that they might never have known about. Unlike some children that I teach, neither of them are afraid of technology and are able to ‘problem solve’ computer issues as well as learning more skills such as coding.
My daughter enjoys playing a game called Sims, which on the surface appears to be a game of constructing an alternate reality. Yet it is also a means to learn moral and life skills such as working in a team, lateral and strategic thinking, as well as scientific deduction. She is now considering a career in architecture. Furthermore, the internet holds a wealth of educational material for all students. I am always amazed by the shock my students display when I tell them to look on YouTube to see adaptations of the Shakespeare they are studying or revision sites and teacher guides.
You might think that my lax attitude means that my children spend all their time on screens. This is not the case. They understand that they have been afforded a privilege and they never take that for granted. They are both, like myself, voracious readers and much prefer going to bed with an actual book. They do this because it is modelled to them.
My daughter will always ask before face-timing her friends. She’s about to go to a new school away from all her friends. There is no finality about leaving friends from her last school behind because she can still communicate with them if she wishes. There is also a lot less anxiety about the transition to her new school and she has already met some girls on her trial day and is now able to communicate with them online. Thus, dispelling some of her worries about making new friends.
My son is autistic and finds it hard to make genuine friendships. He has been educated in a specialist school for several years. This year his best friend left. This was always going to be hard for him to adapt. But with the internet, nothing is ever permanent and it has been a huge benefit for him to know that he can always communicate with his friend if he needs to.
Of course, child protection is paramount. There is no denying that there are many online dangers. But I am a firm believer that you cannot wrap children in cotton wool and pretend that something doesn’t exist. Enabling this degree of freedom also leads to more realistic discussions of internet safety.
I suppose one monumental thing that I do not do, is to use technology as an additional babysitter. There is no substitute for human communication in person. We still sit down at a table for meals and we never have our phones at the table. I’ve never banned them, it is just that we do not see the need.
Technology has changed immeasurably since the 1970s and so one can only assume that it will change even more by the time my children are adults. I believe that what I am enabling them to do, is to learn to embrace and move with technology. But, not just that. I also believe I am giving them the tools to learn that life is not all about excess but about learning to be a responsible citizen and understanding the idea of everything in moderation. Is my approach successful? Well, I might have to wait a few years for the ultimate answer. But I asked my daughter only yesterday, as if to confirm the validity of my approach,
‘What are the rules of our house?’
‘We don’t tend to have rules.’ She replied,” Only to respect each other and respect what we do.” It’s also incredibly reassuring when you’re as old as I am, that you can always count on someone when your broadband doesn’t work.