I was astonished to discover in conversation with another dad last week that he and his wife intended to introduce a screen ban over half term. Not limiting their children to something reasonable like two hours a day. But a blanket ban. How on earth will they cope — and by ‘they’ I mean him and his wife, not their two kids? It’s not as if they’re going on a family cycling holiday on the Dalmatian Coast. No, they’ll be spending this week at home in Acton. The poor buggers will be forced to play Monopoly Empire from first thing in the morning till last thing at night.
When I hear talk of screen bans, it makes me want to set up a National Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adults. Maybe it’s worse if you’ve got four kids. We tried it once and within 48 hours Caroline was muttering darkly about filing for divorce. Life without the electronic babysitter — or should that be digital heroin? — was unbearable. Suddenly, our children were lively and inquisitive, asking all sorts of questions about the world around them. For the first time in years, they wanted to engage in conversation. They reminded me of the catatonic patients in Awakenings after Robin Williams has given them a dose of L-dopa. We felt suicidal.
Admittedly, when I bother to find out what my children are actually watching on their phones and tablets, I do sometimes have second thoughts.
Let’s start with Charlie, my youngest. He divides his time between playing Fifa 17 and watching YouTube videos of other people playing Fifa 17. We’re talking eight hours a day during half term, interrupted only by trips to the park to play Fifa 17 in real life, which involves dribbling the ball round his dad and burying it in the back of the net.
Fred, my second-youngest, spends all his time watching videos of how to make stuff. At first, listening to the cheery, enthusiastic voices of the presenters, I was reminded of those tele-vision shows of my childhood that encouraged viewers to engage in arts and crafts, like Blue Peter and Vision On. ‘Aren’t you ever going to make any of these things?’ I asked him, imagining it was some benign activity that involved cutting and sticking. He gave me a quizzical look then showed me what he’d been watching. It was a step-by-step guide to making a gun. Fred is nine years old.
Ludo, my oldest boy, has shown some signs of progress recently. He’s graduated from watching YouTube videos of Scandinavians playing violent practical jokes on unsuspecting members of the public — a kind of snuff movie version of Candid Camera — to watching repeats of old sitcoms. Alas, we’re not talking Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers. No, he’s spending half term watching back-to-back episodes of Friends. God knows what he finds so mesmerising about it. Can he relate to David Schwimmer’s chronic inability to voice his desire for Jennifer Aniston? He’s only 11, so I don’t think that’s it. It’s probably the childlike, goofy behaviour of Matt LeBlanc who seems permanently marooned in a state of arrested development.
But it’s the viewing habits of Sasha, my 13-year-old daughter, that fill me with the most despair. At one stage I took great pride in the fact that Sasha wasn’t interested in ‘girly’ stuff. No princess dolls or pink wallpaper for her when she was growing up. Her favourite game was ‘incoming’, in which she would bounce up and down on the trampoline dodging footballs that I was hurling at her from the bottom of the garden. In the course of a normal game she would receive at least half a dozen direct hits to the head, but it never seemed to bother her. She had the courage of Achilles and was constantly throwing herself into dangerous sports, most of them invented by her reckless and irresponsible father.
However, since becoming a teenager, she’s developed a passionate interest in all the stuff she avoided as a pre-teen. My Little Pony, for instance. Can’t get enough of that. Or shrill, bouffant-haired mini-me versions of Kim Kardashian, spending hours talking about blusher and eye shadow. Earlier in the week, she delighted in naming all the different shades in Kendall Jenner’s lipstick range — it took 20 minutes. I begged her to spend the same amount of time memorising the capitals of the world instead, but she just laughed. She was lost to YouTube, parented by a screen. Perhaps my neighbour has the right idea. I certainly admire his fortitude.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.