“Screens have given us access to more information, resources and inspiration than we’ve had in any other time in human history. They entertain us, educate us and connect us. They help us develop fine motor skills, research skills, communication skills…”
“WAAAAIIIIT A SECOND. No. Screens have created a platform for sharing lives that are so curated they’re completely impossible to attain. They force us to compare and reflect negatively on our own lives. They’re making us more sedentary than we’ve ever been. They might be connecting us with people, but it’s usually at the expense of those standing in the same room as us.”
“Nope, you’re wrong, they’ve made us more social than ever. And they’re inspiring us to dream and create big.”
“No they’re not, they’re dulling our creativity.”
On and on the screen time debate rages, with both sides making completely valid points.
And that’s why, as a parent, I won’t be joining it.
See, we usually talk about children and screens in terms of how much time they should be spending on devices each day. How long they should have on certain games or apps. How long this age should be allowed to spend on them compared to that age. How long our timer will run before the buzzer goes off and we take the screen away again.
But this is entirely the wrong conversation to be having.
What we should be talking about is when they should have access to devices (because it will happen eventually, but probably shouldn’t yet), and what we need to do to make sure they’re ready for them (because they’re probably not).
Think of screen time like handing over the keys to a car.
We know that operating a vehicle is a serious responsibility. If we make poor choices (like driving while we’re tired, or not sober, or while we’re texting on our phone) it can be disastrous. For us, for the people we love, and even for complete strangers.
We understand that a level of maturity is needed before we get behind the wheel. Not just physically, to operate the thing, but the awareness to do it safely. To truly understand what we’re stepping into, and the potential outcomes and consequences – good and bad – of the time we spend there.
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Believe it or not, like it or not, a mobile device carries the same sort of weight. Our actions while operating one can impact our lives in a big way. They can impact the lives of our loved ones. They can even impact the lives of complete strangers.
We might spiral toward a cripplingly low level of self-confidence after endlessly scrolling past unattainable lives in our Instagram feed (that we think we curate and own, but is actually completely controlled by powerful algorithms and advertising engines).
We might secretly use our parent’s credit card to buy V-bucks or Robux so we can grab the coolest items in the game everyone’s playing right now (which we think we’ll do just this once, but will find almost impossible to resist doing again because it was built by a team of very smart people whose entire job is to make sure you can’t stop thinking about it).
We might cause someone to carry social stigma, recurring nightmares and severe anxiety for the rest of their life after sending on a video of them to our friends (that everyone else was already sharing, anyway, but that should never have been seen by anyone, ever).
We don’t hand a twelve year old child the keys to a car and say ‘just pull over soon, please – I don’t want you spending too much time driving’. Yet here we are dishing out iPads and iPhones hand over fist. As parents we’re great at setting arbitrary time limits, but not so good at education, preparation or involvement.
You can develop a resistance to all this, of course. You can play games without buying into the monetisation engines. And you can continually refine your social media feeds to keep them as close as possible to real life. And you can tone down your notification settings so you’re not roped in when you don’t want to be. And you can develop an awareness of spam, scams, and fake news. And you can choose not to buy the products that are continually put in front of your face with increasingly uncanny timing and accuracy.
You can take the good of what these devices have to offer, and not get sucked in so deep that you have almost no control over the time you spend there, the content you consume, and often even where your money goes.
But tell me, as an adult, can you do all that?
Put a child or teenager up against a Youtube suggestion algorithm, or a Fortnite or Roblox monetisation engine, or an endless Instagram or TikTok feed, or sophisticated ad retargeting, and I can promise you it’s not going to be a fair fight.
Hold the keys back a little bit longer. Take the age you were thinking of buying them a phone at, and increase it right now. Do it out of love. And when you do get there, rather than debating how long they should be sitting on these devices, spend some time and energy getting in there with them instead. Learn about the world behind the screens you’re handing over. Understand how they work, and why they work that way. Empower them with the skills, awareness and confidence they need to control their own online journey.
Don’t leave their experience to chance, because if you pull back the curtains on the digital world you’ll find that concept doesn’t actually exist there.
Prepare them – for the good, and for the bad.
They will fight you now. But they will thank you later.