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Nathalie Mar­quez Courtney on why grown-ups need to re­assess their own screen habits

Dis­tracted, dis­en­gaged, ir­ri­ta­ble – and that’s just us. NATHALIE MAR­QUEZ COURTNEY ex­plores why it’s time to re­flect on the adult screen time con­ver­sa­tion while we’re busy mon­i­tor­ing the kids.

“I’m cook­ing meth in the base­ment,” dead­pans a sweet­look­ing ten-year-old at the fam­ily din­ner ta­ble. “Great idea kiddo, that’s why you’re so pop­u­lar at school,” replies her dad, not look­ing up from scrolling on his phone.

The sketch – star­ring Will Fer­rell – has racked up over 150,000 YouTube views. It’s part of #De­vice Free Din­ners, a cam­paign by US non-profit Com­mon Sense Me­dia that’s en­dorsed by the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics and hopes to encourage the whole fam­ily to get off their de­vices and back into real life dur­ing meal­times.

Closer to home, last year’s Start cam­paign from the HSE came with sim­i­lar en­cour­age­ments, and even a down­load­able “play pact” de­signed to in­spire both par­ents and chil­dren to put away their screens and be more ac­tive. Both cam­paigns high­lighted a marked shift in the screen time con­ver­sa­tion: it’s not just about the kids any more.

For al­most as long as there have been screens, there have been de­bates about how much chil­dren are us­ing them. Kids have al­ways been the ear­li­est adopters; in 1950s Amer­ica, chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming ac­counted for more time on net­work tele­vi­sion than any other cat­e­gory, with ad­ver­tis­ers spend­ing $400,000 (over $4 mil­lion to­day) per week to reach them.

First come the screens, then the stud­ies, fol­lowed by scare­mon­ger­ing headlines and ad­mon­ish­ments (from the age-old “TV

will rot your brain” to the newer “Don’t let them be­come YouTube zom­bies”) and end­less de­bates in the me­dia. Screen time has quickly be­come a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion, with “how much is too much?” be­ing the mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion. “Tech­nol­ogy plays a big role in fam­ily life, and it has evolved over a rel­a­tively short pe­riod of time,” says Alex Cooney, co-founder and CEO of Cy­ber Safe Ire­land (cy­ber­safeire­

De­pend­ing on where you sit on the screen time spec­trum, it’s ei­ther not as bad as you worry it is, or much worse than you re­alise. “We’ve a lot of work to do try­ing to es­tab­lish good so­cial norms,” says Alex. “It’s not to say, by any means, that chil­dren shouldn’t have ac­cess. But we need to get to a place where par­ents are fully aware of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with al­low­ing a child to have a de­vice or ac­cess to the on­line world.”

Re­cently, we’ve be­gun look­ing more holis­ti­cally at how de­vices are used in the home – and that means par­ents too. How can we hope to raise kids with good dig­i­tal habits when we find our­selves per­ma­nently at­tached to our phones, fir­ing off a quick email while at the din­ner ta­ble or mind­lessly scrolling In­sta­gram at midnight?

“If we’re try­ing to pro­mote a healthy bal­ance for our chil­dren, we need to ex­am­ine our­selves,” says Alex. “There are now tools that let us see how much time we’re spend­ing on our de­vices and on so­cial me­dia, and for so many adults I’m speak­ing to, it’s a real wake-up call.”


The stats back up what we al­ready know: Screens are ev­ery­where. A re­cent study by Cy­ber Safe Ire­land found that 79 per cent of Ir­ish eight-year-olds al­ready own a smart de­vice, and al­most half are us­ing so­cial me­dia and mes­sag­ing apps, with 10 per cent be­ing on­line for more than four hours ev­ery day. In the UK, a whop­ping 99 per cent of par­ents of three-to-four-year-olds say their kids spend over 14 hours a week watch­ing TV. In the US, the av­er­age age to be­gin “reg­u­lar” screen use has gone from four years old in the 1970s to just four months old now.

Of course, we grown-ups are not much bet­ter. A 2018 study by Deloitte showed that 20 per cent of Ir­ish adults check their phones within five min­utes of wak­ing up, with the av­er­age Ir­ish phone user pick­ing up their de­vice 55 times in a day.

With­out us re­ally re­al­is­ing, de­vices have crept into ev­ery cor­ner of our lives. They are so hugely use­ful in such a vast va­ri­ety of ways that the lines be­come eas­ily blurred and it be­comes hard to spot where prac­ti­cal use ends and idle browsing begins.

These ad­dic­tive lit­tle gad­gets are do­ing more than just keep­ing us hooked on Candy Crush: Screens are slowly but surely erod­ing some­thing very fun­da­men­tal and pri­mal. For cen­turies, our an­ces­tors gath­ered around hearths at night, lis­ten­ing to sto­ries to­gether

“79 per cent of Ir­ish eight-yearolds own a smart de­vice, and al­most half are al­ready us­ing so­cial me­dia and mes­sag­ing apps.”

and shar­ing anec­dotes about their day. Even when TV came along, it was more of­ten than not a shared ex­pe­ri­ence. Now our faces are lit not by a sin­gle fire, but by the flick­er­ing glow of in­di­vid­ual de­vices; we are lost in our own tiny dig­i­tal worlds, and the end re­sult is that we don’t share as much, talk as much or pick up on as much when we’re to­gether.

This can have huge con­se­quences for ev­ery mem­ber of the fam­ily. Re­search has shown it im­pacts the way ba­bies and tod­dlers learn lan­guage (tuned-out par­ents don’t pick up on as many cues or en­gage in as many back and forths with their ba­bies), the num­ber of play­ground ac­ci­dents (one 2014 re­search pa­per showed 10 per cent more ac­ci­dents in kids un­der six in ar­eas where 3G – and, by ex­ten­sion, smartphone use – was rolled out), rising lev­els of anxiety and de­pres­sion amongst teens and less in­ti­macy among cou­ples. “De­vice use has crept up on us, with­out us re­ally un­der­stand­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions,” says Alex.


UK-based par­ent­ing coach, mum and blogger Eloise Rick­man (frid­abe­ de­cided she needed to dig deep and ex­am­ine her own habits when she was de­sign­ing her on­line course, Mak­ing Sense of Screens. “My screen time wasn’t ter­ri­ble, but it was cer­tainly more than I wanted it to be, and I was re­al­is­ing that it was re­ally im­pact­ing on how present I was be­ing with my daugh­ter,” she says. “I’d be playing with her, and then there’d be a ping from my phone, and I would feel drawn to go and check it. I was notic­ing that in any sort of gaps I had – say go­ing to the kitchen to make a cup of tea – I’d be pulling out my phone.”

Be­cause de­vices are so ubiq­ui­tous and the pres­sure to be al­ways on­line is so in­tense (who doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate a speedy email re­ply?), we’ve be­gun nor­mal­is­ing our de­vice use. “Many of us have these low-level com­pul­sions or ad­dic­tions to our phones,” says Eloise. “But the word ‘ad­dic­tion’ sounds re­ally nasty, so we don’t say that.”

“But how on earth can I be a pos­i­tive role model to my daugh­ter and hope that she will have a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with screens as she gets older, if all she sees is how I’m check­ing my phone all the time?”

Eloise ex­per­i­mented with re­strict­ing her In­sta­gram use to just 20 min­utes per day, Mon­day to Fri­day (“when added up, that’s still three days of your year on In­sta­gram,” she laughs) and she feels so much bet­ter for it. “I have a lovely com­mu­nity on In­sta­gram and have re­ally en­joyed it as a plat­form, but it was tak­ing me away from my real-life re­la­tion­ships, and for no good rea­son.”


And while screen time has been linked in a very causal way to things like in­creased lev­els of obe­sity, or in­creased anxiety from so­cial me­dia, Eloise warns that say­ing screen time as a whole is bad is not the an­swer. “The re­search doesn’t re­ally bear that out,” she says. “It’s much more nu­anced in terms of how peo­ple are ac­tu­ally spend­ing their time on­line, and whether it’s ac­tive or pas­sive.” Her course aims to give par­ents guilt-free guid­ance to help them eval­u­ate not just the quan­tity of screen time, but the quality. “It’s about look­ing at time spent on games, or watch­ing TV ver­sus time spent do­ing other things. If they’re watch­ing quality pro­gram­ming, it doesn’t have a neg­a­tive im­pact on them.”

As with ev­ery­thing in life, the key is bal­ance. Mod­el­ling the be­hav­iour we want to see is the first step in en­sur­ing our chil­dren have a healthy, pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with screens. “You can’t tell your child to go and be out­side, go play a game, go do some sport, or go read a book if we don’t do these things our­selves,” says Eloise.

Help­ing chil­dren de­velop a whole­some re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy is a cru­cial life skill. But en­sur­ing there are open con­ver­sa­tions and healthy lim­its for the whole fam­ily will leave chil­dren bet­ter equipped when the in­evitable time comes for them to have more pri­vacy and in­de­pen­dence. The buck doesn’t stop at par­ents ei­ther – Alex feels it’s vi­tal that gov­ern­ments work to help ed­u­cate par­ents about the im­por­tance of es­tab­lish­ing good so­cial norms. “We’re go­ing to need some­thing along the lines of the road safety cam­paign but for on­line safety,” she says. “We need stronger reg­u­la­tion and greater ac­count­abil­ity at na­tional level.”

“Just like how when we teach our chil­dren to cross the road, we’re pre­par­ing them for a time when they’ll have to make that judg­ment them­selves,” says Alex. “We’re go­ing to need to pre­pare them for the on­line world in the same way.”

“Our de­vices are so use­ful in such a va­ri­ety of ways that the lines be­come blurred and it be­comes hard to spot where prac­ti­cal use ends and idle browsing begins.”

Blogger Eloise Rick­man runs the pop­u­lar on­line course Mak­ing Sense of Screens

Alex Cooney, CEO of Cy­ber­SafeIre­land

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