When I’m not being a writer or a journalist, I often go into schools and talk to parents and young children about the benefits of taking a regular break from their phones. It’s the second year that I have co-presented an e-safety campaign for Safer Internet Week and whereas last year I felt we were slightly ahead of the curve, 2019 feels very different already.
There’s been a recent spate of stories about young people who have taken their own lives. When I used to do my talk about how beneficial it is to switch off all tech at least an hour before bed, and keep it out of bedrooms, the most powerful example I could use that parents would definitely have heard of was the tragic case of Surrey schoolboy Breck Bednar.
Breck was just 14 when he was raped and murdered by an 18-year-old who had groomed him via an online gaming platform. In the weeks before his death in 2014, Breck’s mother had suspected something was amiss but could not get the police to take her seriously.
I now seem to have my pick of tragedies with which to illustrate the dangers of letting children take phones, tablets and interactive gaming to bed. Molly Russell (14), Leilani Clark (16), Sophie Parkinson (13), Daniel Long (15), Ursula Keogh (11), the list is depressingly long and growing.
The commonality in these deaths is the fact that these youngsters were regularly online in their bedrooms, unsupervised and alone, viewing horrendously disturbing content about self-harm and suicide. Could their untimely and tragic deaths have been avoided if their parents had insisted that they switched off at say, 8pm every night and kept their phones and tablets downstairs? Would that bit of breathing space have allowed their poor, overloaded adolescent brains time to reassess, to think, without being bombarded with social media content that in effect, normalised how they felt and encouraged them to end it? We will never know.
Mobile phones are as addictive as a hit of cocaine on young and developing brains. Social media apps are designed to keep them coming back for more and the clever algorithms send personally designed content based on recent searches, to hook them in and keep them there. It’s asking an awful lot of a child to effectively manage their own addiction and regulate their smartphone consumption safely. In fact, for children who have never known a time without tech, it’s almost an impossible ask.
Heads and teachers tell me that they now find themselves spending a disproportionate amount of time trying to teach children who have not had enough sleep, and sorting out disputes that have started online and ended in the classroom. Banning phones in school is fine, but if there are no corresponding restrictions when the child gets home, the school is at a loss. And it’s no use parents sitting back and waiting for the companies that control social media apps to take responsibility either.
Having now conducted many assemblies and parents’ evenings, all the feedback I’ve received points to more education, rather than legislation. If parents want to make sure that their children are getting enough sleep, taking a regular break from social media and staying safe from cyberbullies and online sexual predators, then the obvious answer is to have a regular switch off before bedtime and keep phones out of bedrooms.
I’m a parent to two young teens so this is not just idle conjecture. I know how hard it is to lead by example and turn off my own phone in the evening to concentrate on the people actually in the room. I bear the scars from many battles with my children who naturally, think they know best and that 'all their friends are allowed' to do whatever it is I’m banning.
As a parent I can see that I am the first and last line of defence for my children when it comes to learning good and sustainable digital habits. Simply turning off the Wifi is a bit like slapping a padlock on the fridge of a compulsive eater. Isn’t it better to teach self control and empower the individual to make a positive choice to switch off and go and do something else instead?
Smartphones are a wonderful thing and I’m glad they exist, but it’s our job as parents to teach our children how to live safely and healthily with them. If we don’t, then the consequences might just be too awful to imagine.