More reasons to unplug kids from technology

May 3, 2013

An article appeared in The Guardian this week with a nice picture of two kids cooking together in a kitchen. But the picture belies the content of the article, which is all about the dangers of hidden advertising on children’s apps. What struck me about the article was the way the author talked quite unconcernedly about children’s apps and the scale of their popularity. Her sole concern was with the advertising, not with the apps themselves.

The way she described some of the apps seemed quite illuminating too;

“Dirtgirlworld, a game played on smartphones and tablets, teaches children how to grow food from scratch and cook up tasty meals”

Really? How? I’ve never looked at this app, but I very much doubt it does anything of the sort. Where does a child’s experience of the texture, smell, weight or taste of the food come in? (I was particularly amused that she actually used the word ‘tasty’) The sense of passing time in learning how long it takes to grow things from seed, the anticipation, the sense of responsibility for daily care, the sense of achievement at creating something, and the satisfaction of eating it and sharing it? Where’s the social interaction in the kitchen with parents or siblings? The opportunity to connect with parents?

I confess I’m a little out of touch with these things. Perhaps there’s a tree climbing app? A den building app? When it snows I expect there’s a sledging and snowman-making app. There must be so many things my child could do without ever having to leave the house.

Recent grumblings in the press about in app purchases, where children left unattended with tablets and smartphones are prone to inadvertently spending lots of their parents’ money, are another example of how we’re happy to complain about problems associated with our children using these apps, but not about the apps themselves. Something must be done to prevent this happening, everyone says. Game manufacturers must be stopped from manipulating our children and conning us out of our cash. I agree. Here’s my answer: unplug the whole bloody lot and send the kids outside.

The simple fact is that computer games cannot replace real life experiences.  As with TV, parents kid themselves that these things are educational and beneficial. But time spent in front of screens is time wasted. There are a myriad of better things for kids to be doing in this short, precious time in their lives.

If the dangers of in app purchases, advertising and addiction aren’t enough for you, not to mention the small matter of the compromising of normal child development and emotional well-being, have a think about this one:

Children are safer playing out than on the internet, according to a new report by the NSPCC. In an article in the Telegraph last month, the author of the report, Lisa Hawker, is reported to have said,

“Parents are perhaps unaware that when your child is using a computer or mobile phone they may be at greater risk of being hurt or harmed in some way than if they are out and about in their local park. The changing nature of the way we live our lives means that actually your chances of meeting someone who can harm you is now much greater through the internet or your mobile phone than through a stranger you might come across in the street or the local park.”

The report talks about online dangers such as sexting, cyberbullying, and exposure to sexual and other inappropriate images.

How many reasons do we need to persuade us to keep our children from becoming screen zombies?

Child-iPhone-300x168Emma Cook’s article in The Guardian is at least honest in questioning how healthy it might be for her kids to be glued to these devices for so many hours of their leisure time, and admitting to her own responsibility for this as a parent. The article concludes with some fairly sensible suggestions around how parents might manage their kids’ relationship with technology, but the part I didn’t go for was the idea that because we have to accept that kids are growing up in a world full of technology, we need to embrace it; somehow meaning we just allow it and don’t worry about it as long as we engage with it with them and set a few limits. As I’ve said before; I don’t subscribe to this argument.

It’s easy to learn how to use this stuff. Really easy. 2 year olds like Emma Cook’s daughter can tell us that. So what’s the hurry? Children are not going to be somehow disabled or left behind if they start using it later. I didn’t use a mouse or keyboard until I was pushing 30 and I seem to be doing just fine now. And it’s all changing so fast anyway. By the time our children are adults, who knows what all these devices will look like or what they’ll be able to do? So having learnt to use something at age 2 isn’t going to give you any advantage later on. But on the flip side, all the things you missed out on which you could have been doing instead could be a disadvantage.

Everything in moderation? I agree. But I’m not seeing a great deal of moderation reported in the media right now, and quite simply, this is not how childhood should be spent.


Whose needs are schools there to serve?

April 23, 2013

Student WritingMr Gove really has out-done himself this time. Longer school hours and shorter school holidays? Oh please. 

Where’s the evidence Mr Gove? Where? Show me a single piece of evidence or research that suggests that such a measure would improve academic performance. Vague references to East Asian countries have already been proven to be nonsense

I’ve already read several articles attacking Gove and his crazy notions in no uncertain terms. But, as I feared, there had to be some short-sighted and self-centred people who’d agree with him, because, well, quite simply, it would mean a reduction in their childcare costs and be nice and convenient. Forget that school’s purpose is supposed to be to provide education, not free childcare. 

In a lame attempt to think of someone other than herself, The Observer’s Stephanie Merritt concedes,

“…any serious attempt to align school hours with working hours would need to be carefully negotiated so that the burden of longer days does not fall exclusively on teachers.”

Gosh, that’s big of you, but don’t worry, the burden will not fall exclusively on teachers; it will also fall rather heavily on children. Yes, children. You know, those small, developing beings that make up 20% of the population. Maybe we need to stop for just a minute to think about their needs. 

But if you want to talk about changing things that were put in place a long time ago, that exist for historical reasons which are no longer relevant, let’s look at the school starting age in the UK. Put in place in 1870 (!), such an early starting age was based not on children’s educational or developmental needs, but on the needs of employers who wanted a correspondingly early leaving age. But I’m guessing Mr Gove has no plans to ‘update’ this one. I’m guessing Ms Merritt wouldn’t welcome such a move either. 

So 143 years on, we’re still basing decisions that profoundly affect our children’s lives, solely on the convenience to our workforce and economy. Even if there were any evidence regarding the impact of such a move on academic achievement, this, whilst important, is not the only thing to consider. What about social and emotional development? What about the long term impact of such a childhood as Gove envisages? Ms Merritt talks about how children are no longer playing out over the holidays and are spending their time in front of screens instead. So they might as well be in school, she argues. Perhaps we need to be doing something about this, instead of simply accepting that this is how things are now. Because is this really the world we want for our children? 

Let’s talk about making changes that take steps to give our children back their freedom, not further deprive them of their childhoods.


My child, not yours.

April 11, 2013

Mother Holding ChildI have just been reading about the recent story of how a shop worker smacked a three year old girl, who she deemed to be misbehaving, without the permission of the parent. Needless to say, I am outraged (although it seems not everyone is). 

I could of course write a good deal on why I think smacking is wrong, and have a good rant about this. But the story also made my blood pressure rise for other reasons. It evoked that all too familiar feeling of extreme annoyance and affront that I feel whenever someone takes it upon themselves, uninvited, to speak to my child in a way I feel is not appropriate. 

At what point is it OK to intervene with someone else’s child? This question could lead to an endless debate about what is and is not acceptable behaviour from children, but I think that misses the point. 

Sarah Ditum’s article in The Guardian, whilst expressing her disapproval of the incident, concludes by saying, “… there are so many ways of dealing with another person’s child in the act of naughtiness that don’t involve physically attacking them‚ like, say, talking to them gently but firmly.” 

True. But I would go further, like, say, talking to their parents. Anyone ever think of that? It’s not like the mother wasn’t there. 

And that’s what really gets me. I would always favour talking to the parent first, rather than to their child. 

It’s the parent’s job to choose their methods of parenting, of disciplining and limit setting. And it’s the parent’s job to decide what they think are reasonable limits to set. If we disagree with these limits and feel there is a problem then it is surely more appropriate to discuss these with the parent than to take matters into our own hands with their child. The parent is also the one with intimate knowledge of their child, of the sort of language and methods they will and will not respond to, how they’re likely to respond, how they’re likely to be feeling, where their behaviour is coming from in the first place, what has gone before. 

And yet so often I find people talk to my child inappropriately. Don’t misunderstand. I do not let my child just run amuck. I don’t think it’s OK for my child to charge round a shop knocking things over and breaking them. Nor, I’m sure, did Angela Cropley. I’m right there, ready to deal with the situation as I see fit, and yet so often it’s taken out of my hands before I have the chance. 

And it’s not just issues around behaviour that bug me. It bugs me when people comment to my child on how dirty he is when I don’t mind him getting dirty if he’s having fun, and I don’t want him to be worried about it. It bugs me when people use language like ‘naughty’ and ‘not very nice’ around my child. It bugs me when people try to distract or cheer up my child when he’s crying, or worse, mock or belittle him, when I would rather validate his feelings and let him have a good cry if he needs to. 

I recognise that much of the problem for me is that others’ perception or definition of what is bad or normal behaviour are often not on a par with mine. Couple that with the fact that my methods of dealing with behaviour are not on a par with theirs, and the result is, well, lots of difference of opinion, and perhaps I’m over-sensitive about it. But the thing is, I spend a great deal of time biting my tongue or turning a blind eye to parenting methods that I strongly disagree with, and that I often find quite upsetting to witness. Children being smacked, children being left to cry, threatened, bullied, talked down to, disrespected and humiliated. But I say nothing because I don’t feel it’s my place to interfere. So it would be really nice to feel other parents could extend me the same courtesy. 

So as well as raising the issue of respect for children, this recent incident of the child being smacked by a shop keeper raises the issue of respect for parents. 

Please stop assuming that everyone uses and approves of the same old dated parenting methods. If you want to use them with your child, that’s your business, but my child, my methods are my business. Butt out.


TV beneficial to children? Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

April 8, 2013

I sighed when I read another article in The Guardian this weekend that does nothing more than simply tell parents what they want to hear – this time that it’s OK to let your children watch hours of TV.

girl holding a remote controlThe article offers no new evidence, just the opinion of a parent seemingly trying to justify the amount of TV her kids watch. Another parent wanting to reassure herself that it’s OK for her children to spend hours in front of the TV because it’s somehow beneficial to them. Keep telling yourself that, but sorry, the evidence for it just isn’t there. In fact there’s plenty to refute it, most of which the writer has saved me the trouble of having to refer to since she does this herself, then proceeds to ignore it.

She waxes lyrical about all the wonderful things CBeebies has to offer to such a degree that one wonders if she was commissioned by the BBC to write such an article. I agree that the quality of children’s TV programmes varies, and that the BBC’s are of the highest. But it’s still just TV. It doesn’t replace interaction with the real world or with real people. It has zero value, other than to give parents a break. Let’s all stop kidding ourselves, cut the crap, and just admit it, please.

But what I really have a problem with is the last paragraph of the article;

“Good-quality children’s programmes are an asset to be treasured and the idea that there is always something better to do than watch TV or play computer games is, I think, rubbish – part guilt about not giving our kids enough time and attention, part snobbery about popular culture not being worthy of serious attention and part nostalgia for a more innocent past when playing in the street was thought to be safe.”

Firstly, if Susanna Rustin really can’t think of something better to do than watch TV or play computer games, if she really thinks her kids can’t, then she must be sadly lacking in imagination.

Secondly, I am very uncomfortable with the choice of words here; “..playing in the street was thought to be safe.” Excuse me? Playing in the street was safe. It wasn’t merely “thought to be”. In fact it still is, at least in many areas. It wasn’t just some misguided notion that we’ve now wised up to. And it’s not just for the sake of nostalgia that organisations like Playing OutOutdoor Nation, Save Childhood Movement and Play England, to name but a few, are working to get kids back outside.

And this is really why the article bothers me so much. I don’t wish to take a shot at every parent who ever allows their kids to watch TV. I’m guilty of it myself. I don’t throw my hands up in horror every time I see a child in front of a screen. But I take issue with articles like this because they undermine the very real need to raise awareness of the growing concern over the changing nature of childhood today and the long-term implications of this. They fail to take seriously what needs to be taken seriously, they promote myths, and burying of heads in sand (or in this case, screens).

So please, Susanna Rustin, keep reassuring yourself if you need to, but don’t try to reassure everyone else.


The puzzling contradictions in our attitudes to child welfare

November 27, 2012

With the media buzz about Jimmy Saville following close on the heels of the media buzz about the April Jones case, we’re all keeping our kids indoors and not letting them out of our sight, despite the many warnings of the disadvantages to our children of restricting their lives in this way. Only zero risk is acceptable when it comes to child welfare it seems. 

This week’s media buzz is around the case of the Eastern European children removed from their foster placement with a couple who turned out to be members of UKIP. Yet despite UKIP members and politicians making their views and attitudes known via blatantly homophobic and archaic comments about gay couple adoption, and policies that seek to “end the active promotion of the doctrine of multiculturalism by local and national government”, we’re all outraged at the idea that a couple who subscribe to these ideals are not considered suitable carers for these children. 

Explain this one to me. It’s OK to deprive children of the opportunity to play outdoors on the grounds of a minute risk that has actually been shown to have decreased since the 70s when kids were roaming all over the place, but it’s not OK to remove vulnerable children from the care of a couple whose political views are directly at odds with their background and cultural needs. 

Winston McKenzie – how is it OK for Eastern European children to be placed with members of your party, a party that does not welcome the presence of these children in this country, nor their ability to obtain benefits, (how much do you think it costs social services to keep these children in foster care, genius?), but not OK for children to be placed with a gay couple? 

I’m sensing a few contradictions amongst all this. 

But there’s one particular point I’d really like to make, because whenever the subject of fostering and adoption is in the media this seems to be missed by many, including UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, who is reported to have ‘demanded the children be returned’, and talks about the couple’s ‘right to foster’. 

There is no ‘right to foster’. This is not about foster carers rights; it’s about children’s rights and needs. Social services are serving the interests of the children. And this is the way it should be. No-one has an automatic right to foster or adopt. It might be tough, it might be unfair, but that’s the way it is. Get over it. 

In any case, no-one has said this particular couple can’t foster, just that this was not a suitable placement for them. Michael Gove might think “We should not allow considerations of ethnic or cultural background to prevent children being placed”, he might think these considerations are unimportant, irrelevant even, but I think he’s wrong. Meeting the long term needs of fostered and adopted children is complex, and their cultural and ethnic needs absolutely should be considered. It’s not as simple as he makes out. 

Perhaps, instead of asking, “Would you honestly want your child to be adopted by a gay couple?”, Winston McKenzie should encourage us to ask this; 

If you were from Eastern Europe, would you honestly want your children to be placed with a couple who are members of UKIP? Would you consider this to be a suitable match, a good placement for the potential long term? Or would you wonder if your children might be better off with another foster family?


Going with the flow of technology?

July 31, 2012

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero television for under twos, and no more than one to two hours a day for older children.

Rather shockingly, after a quick bit of research, there don’t seem to be any such guidelines from any equivalent UK body, although back in 2007 psychologist Dr Aric Sigman made recommendations to the government of zero television for under threes and just thirty minutes to one hour a day for children aged three to seven, increasing after this to up to two hours a day for sixteen year olds. He asked the government to produce guidelines to this effect.

Newspaper articles are always giving us various shocking figures regarding how much TV the average child views every day, every week, in a year or in a lifetime, but these statistics often don’t include time in front of screens other than TVs, something which would surely make for even more sobering reading.

Miranda Sawyer’s recent article in the Guardian struck me as incredibly complacent. That unquestioning, ‘go with the flow’ kind of attitude that I so detest. “He could play computer games before he could read. Now he reaches for his Nintendo DS like I reach for my mobile; he fills in idle moments on Fifa..” she says of her six-year-old. And she just accepts this?! A six-year-old? I must be leading some sort of sheltered existence because I admit this actually shocks me. Not just the idea of a child being so addicted to something at such an age, but that their parent could be so blasé about it.

The thing about these devices is that, unlike TVs, which are bad enough in the way they’re cropping up in more and more public places, kids can take them everywhere, so they can interfere not only with their play at home, but when they’re out and about, on camping trips, at parties, at a friend’s house, on a visit to relatives, picnics, everywhere. Not much good the National Trust and other organisations bleating about getting kids outdoors more and away from screens if they’re just going to take the darned things out with them.

When we went to a barbecue recently, my child, having been told we were going to a party, was a bit taken aback on arrival by the absence of a bouncy castle and face painting. But with plenty of other children there and a large garden to explore he soon became happily occupied with playing hide and seek, ball games, and just being kids.

But there was one child who had brought some hand-held device. He played with the other children for a short while, then sat, squatting on the grass, engrossed in his device for the remainder of the party. I can’t even begin to list all the things this child was missing out on. I kept looking over at him, then at the other children playing, with a mixture of horror and amazement that such a situation has seemingly become acceptable in our society.

There is plenty of evidence of the harm screen time can do to children’s development. After all, this is what the recommendations of psychologists and organisations like the AAP are based on. Short attention span, aggression, obesity, impaired language development, reduced academic performance, poor sleep are just a few of the potential problems, perhaps the ones easiest to dismiss. A more potent warning for me is that of children becoming dependent on screens for entertainment and losing their natural ability to create their own play. But it’s what children are missing out on that really kills me, what they could be doing if they weren’t glued to a screen of some sort.

Many seem to think technology is just something we must accept for our kids as part of our modern society. Things were different when we were kids, things change. Technology will be part of our children’s lives, there’s no escaping from it. We must embrace it.

But somehow I’m just not comfortable with this view. There’s an appropriate time for kids to start engaging with this sort of technology, and I don’t think as soon as they’re able to press buttons or control a mouse is necessarily that time. We all know how easy this stuff is to learn, so what’s the hurry? It’s another erosion of childhood, something else that keeps kids from being kids, and something else that we, as adults, need to protect them from.

TV and computer games are addictive, habit-forming, and kids can’t self-regulate in the way adults do (and we’re bad enough with the frequency we check in with our smartphones) so it’s up to adults to put limits on the amount of time they spend on these things. Every parent will have their own views as to what is and is not an appropriate amount of screen time for their children, and when they do or do not allow it, but if Miranda Sawyer’s article is anything to go by, those government guidelines that Dr Sigman called for five years ago are long overdue.

I know there’s going to be peer pressure and pester power as my child gets older, but if he ever has a DS or similar, and I intend that he will go as long as possible without one, then one of my limits will be that he doesn’t take it out with him to parties.

When I first became a parent someone once warned me never to say ‘My child won’t do that’. But after observing that child at the party, and the contrasting example of the other children’s capacity to make their own entertainment, I’m going to stick my neck out here;

My child won’t do that. I will personally see to it that he doesn’t.

Because I will not be blasé, I won’t go with the flow, and I won’t just accept it.


Free range kids

July 19, 2012

I’ve been noticing a fair bit of stuff in the press lately about how today’s children don’t get outdoors enough, and spend too much time in front of screens or in scheduled activities. There has even been a phrase coined for this phenomenon –  ‘Nature Deficit Disorder‘ –  for which the National Trust blame the increase in gadgets and traffic, and to which they attribute the rise in obesity and mental health problems amongst children.

All very depressing, but what really caught my attention was this article about the Playing Out Project in Bristol, where two mothers sought and gained permission from the local council to close their street to traffic at an agreed time to allow the children to play out on it. The project is now spreading across Bristol and elsewhere. The benefits of this type of play discussed in the article were to me both obvious and a revelation at the same time.

Sure, I remember some great days out, some great family holidays. But the bulk of what really defines my childhood memories are those of just playing out, with my friends, in my village. Favourite hiding places, favourite trees, favourite games. Roaming the village and surrounding woods and fields, unchaperoned by adults. I don’t make this latter point because we took the opportunity to get up to mischief (not that we were perfect either), but because the absence of adults gave us a certain autonomy. We were free to express ourselves, to play games without fear of disapproval or ridicule, to get lost in our own children’s world without the self-consciousness of knowing adults were watching and listening. We climbed trees, made dens, strayed in and out of each other’s houses and gardens, went in search of conkers or blackberries, but most of all played all sorts of make-believe games, sometimes just two of us, sometimes quite complex, organised games with larger groups of mixed ages.

Now, having a child of my own but living in a large city, I’m lucky again to live on a no-through road where the kids play out regularly. My child doesn’t have as much freedom as I did, but reading about the Playing Out Project made me appreciate that the little freedom he does have – being able to step outside his own front door unchaperoned, and play freely on his own street – is an unusually large amount, at least for kids who live in urban areas. And just as I have always taken my own childhood experience for granted, so I have been taking my child’s for granted now. Free range childhoods have become something in danger of extinction, something to be campaigned for and saved.

But what has really dawned on me is that it’s not just about loss of exercise, fresh air, or knowing that apples grow on trees. It’s about the loss of free play. Unsupervised, unorganised, unscheduled free play. It’s not just about getting outdoors, it’s about free range, unobserved, unstructured, spontaneous, creative, imaginative, cooperative play.

A constant source of admiration and wonder for me is just how long the kids can and will play out, with no adult supervision or organised activities, but with just their own initiative and imagination. They make use of whatever materials happen to be available. There have been Saturdays this summer when my child has played out on the street from 10am to 5.30pm, just coming in briefly for lunch. What does he do out there all this time? Sure, the adults facilitate the play to some extent, providing chalk, scooters, balls, and materials to create a messy play area, although even this was not originally intended for the kids, they just made it theirs. But often they’ll just create. Last weekend they spent a good deal of time playing with an empty wheelie bin, for example. Sometimes they come in requesting specific materials to further their ideas. My child came in the other day and asked for a rucksack and an umbrella because he was ‘going camping’. I provided the requested items then watched with interest through the window while he and his friends all trekked with their backpacks 25 metres down the road then stopped to ‘set up camp’ with old blankets, and sat there for some time pretending to read magazines and newspapers under their umbrellas.

This is real play. This is what those kids the National Trust talk about are really missing out on. In real play they learn teamwork, cooperation, negotiation, how to be inclusive, how to share, how to deal with disagreements and fall outs, how to put their ideas forward, how to handle rejection, how to interact with others, how to socialise. The list is endless. And kids need space to do all this. Not just physical space, but space of their own, that they can organise and control themselves, not be subject to the organisation and control of adults.

Kids don’t need to just get out to the park, out on a walk, or some other adult organised and chaperoned activity, but out, on their own, in their own neighbourhoods, on a regular basis. Let’s get behind the campaign for free range childhoods, for reclaiming the streets, for getting kids away from screens and back into the creative, imaginative play that kids do best. The nature of free range play is unique and worth fighting to preserve.

For more on the movement for free range kids, kids play and childhood generally see:

http://playingout.net/

http://rethinkingchildhood.com/

http://www.sustrans.org.uk/freerangekids/about-free-range-kids

http://www.playengland.org.uk/

http://outdoornation.org.uk/