Consumption: The Cinderella of Digital Well-being

From Content to Consumption; Helping Parents To Get The Balance Right

January has become a busy time of year for me. In addition to our New Year resolutions, and the resetting of our expectations and relationships with food, exercise, spending and alcohol, the personal use of technology is now increasingly part of that list of behaviours that we all want to manage better. January becomes not just a dry month, a return to the gym, and plates of kale and broccoli, but the month in which a trial separation from the smartphone may be on the to-do list. We are now in the age of the digital detox.

Of course it is entirely possible that this trend is also a product of the winter holiday for families, which brings with it a strange conjunction of increased time together and the giving of gifts, many of which will be a tablet, smartphone, game or games console. The increased time with family, partners or friends over Christmas is then disrupted by those exciting new entrants into the fold. The likelihood that a new device or game will soon draw time and attention away from shared activities seems inevitable, and we increasingly foster solitary interactions with the device. What is perhaps most astonishing is that even for families who are lucky enough to go away for Christmas, to wonderful mountainous or warm locations, the lure of connection and interaction with a device dwarfs any pleasure in such an escape. So come the beginning of January, the calls begin, and parents ask for help in finding their lost child, as if their child had followed the Pied Piper into the mountainside, once that box were opened.

Whilst this is not a universal picture of a family Christmas, at least not yet, adult anxieties about their own use of devices underpins some of the concerns. But most adults still have memories and experience of a life before mobile devices, and of happy, immersive experiences, at a concert, a party or on a walk, where the full range of senses could take in the magnitude of the experience, without fear trying to capture the experience with a device to ‘share’.

But more and more I hear from parents and schools that they are worried not just about the impact of new technologies on the development of young people, but about the very issue of how to get them to switch off, or even put the smartphone down. The recent survey from Action for Children (https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/news-and-opinion/latest-news/2016/january/unplugging-from-technology/) suggests that parents struggle to manage their children’s screen time more than they do trying to get them to eat healthily, go to bed or do homework. Almost a quarter of parents struggle with managing screen time, though I suspect this is quite an underestimation of the struggles of many families. Of course it also means that 75% feel they can manage their children’s use of devices, and one message that often fails to emerge is how some parents manage this issue more confidently; what can we learn from those families where this is less of a problem? But as tablets get cheaper and cheaper, and home broadband a utility no different from electricity or water, do we need to make it easier for parents to feel more confident in managing the use of devices and consumption of digital media, well before it becomes unmanageable?

I was reminded how little we support parents in this area recently, when a parent described how they had set the timer on the home router to switch off the WiFi at 10.30pm. This simple, digital ‘lights out’ time had became a standard part of home life. Yet I have never seen clear advice on how to do this, nor could instruct a parent myself how to do so. Whilst mobile connections were still possible for the young people in that home, the lack of bandwidth seriously restricted their pleasure in using their devices late at night, and the bitter pill that it was time to sleep became a little easier to swallow.

Yet how many routers that are provided by ISPs make it easy for a parent so to set such a time limit? How many tablets have easy to use apps that allow parents to set a time limit for their use? It is far easier for a parent to record television programmes than to control access to the internet.

There has been progress in recent years in helping parents limit children’s accidental or intentional access to disturbing or adult content online. The move to having filters for such content, switched on by default by the ISPs, such that any family could feel better protected without needing high level technical skills, may well protect the more vulnerable families. But for too long now the fascination with content and conduct in e-safety circles has marginalised the challenges of use and consumption. The recent survey from Action for Children does echo clinical experience which suggest a gap here, and that this is an area where parents really want more support. And even more strikingly, the recent Ofcom research on Children’s Media Literacy suggest that young people themselves also want help in managing their use of social media and games (for another time). What we need are technical solutions as well as educational supports that enable parents to easily manage their children’s use, when they wish to, so that they do not feel deskilled or incapable of managing this aspect of every child’s life today.

And the technical skills required should be no greater than those needed when using a microwave oven or recording a television programme. Some innovation needed here, and soon.

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