Are we failing the next generation?

Many months ago I watched this YouTube video showing a baby using an iPad. The baby seems to have grasped the iPad interface pretty well, but is then presented with a magazine. Expecting it to work the same, they tried to swipe the pictures around the magazine. Sure, it’s funny, but it’s also a sign of the times.

I’m a father, and my five-year-old can easily use the iPad and navigate around the various games on there. He could, if he was unmonitored, play for hours on end, but I simply won’t allow it.

A recent ITV show called “Tonight” showed how other kids were very much the same given the chance. On the show they put a group of children in a room filled with toys on one side and some tablets, gadgets and Nintendo DS’s on the other. Guess what happened? Most kids flocked to the gadgets.

An iPad is a popular choice with kids and parents alike. For the parents it can be a temporary nanny, keeping kids quiet while parents do other things. For kids, it’s an ever-changing cartoon world which you can play and participate in.

Are we failing the next generation?

A young tablet user on the move Photo: ITV / Tonight

However, part of that same ITV show also pointed out something else. They put the kids in a room filled only with soft toys, board games, cars and other toys. No gadgets anywhere. Most kids loved it, they talked together and played with each other, helping to fix a scalextric track and build things as part of a team. They built relationships.

In a room filled with just gadgets, the kids didn’t communicate at all. They sat down quietly. They didn’t talk to their peers or run about. A psychologist commented on their lack of social skills in later life should this be allowed to continue.

Now, I work in IT. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly smart people. They’re fantastic problem-solvers and have academic, analytical minds. These people are very, very brainy. However, a lot of very successful IT bods can lack some social skills (that’s the nicest way I can put this), and although they can produce elegant code they find it difficult to start discussions or interact with others.

Is this the tip of the iceberg?

Many years ago, when the techies of today were just kids, there were a few gadgets and consoles kicking around. Many of those gadgets were addictive, many were setup in bedrooms across the country, but there weren’t many that were as portable or as immersive as the iPad, Android tablet or smartphone of today.

We have, many years ago, passed the stage where it’s strange to see children playing with gadgets at the dinner table. Take a trip to Pizza Hut and you’ll see kids being given the iPad pacifier or the iPhone dummy to keep them quiet until the food comes. I’ll admit to doing this myself, and as a parent you also feel peer pressure when your child asks..

Why can’t I play on the phone like that other boy over there?

But I noticed something, and it wasn’t just about a phone. Somehow, over the last few months, my son has ended up watching TV while we eat dinner. I don’t know when it began, but his favourite show tends to end up being on in the background while me and my wife talk about our respective day at work. After a while, despite the fact that I knew the reason, we found that his table manners had gone downhill. He wasn’t eating his food properly and he wasn’t listening to us. Turning the TV off as punishment for this mid-way through the meal sent all the wrong signals too, because it ended up being a bargaining tool.

Turning off that TV, like trying to remove gadgets from children after they’ve got used to having them, is painful. Kids will kick off, they will throw a paddy. They want their gadget / TV / iPad / iPod back.

Are we failing the next generation?

Now I’ve looked at it, and I’ve looked at myself too, I have to admit that it’s a failure of the parents to control this. I’ve now ensured that the TV isn’t turned on during dinner at all, and we’ve had a definite improvement in behaviour. We’ve also got a more talkative and reasoned child who doesn’t argue quite so much. When he is allowed to play on the iPad, there’s agreed rules before he uses it and I specify how much time he can have on it. I also state that, when time is up, there is to be no discussion and I monitor absolutely everything he does on it.

Let’s circle back to those social skills for a moment though. Is the psychologist right to state that too much screen-time results in socially-awkward people? Is an iPad or any other type of tablet any different to a book? A book will result in your child sitting quietly, and when they’re reading to themselves they’ll not be interacting either. Are books just as bad?

A key issue, for me at least, is the fact that a lot of the gadgets today have an internet connection of some kind. Give your child an iPod and they’ll easily be able to watch a whole host of videos on YouTube that are no-where near age appropriate. Just last week my wife was shocked at the up-close super slow-mo footage of the Kennedy assassination that she found on YouTube, and there was absolutely no warning or age restriction, plus it had been online for years. Want your kids to see that? Go ahead, there’s no warnings..

Are we failing the next generation?

Sure, like every other social website, YouTube will state that users can “flag” videos, but there’s always a huge delay and far more content gets uploaded second by second. It’s like a dog chasing its tail. The ones above might get filtered out if you grab your childs device and ensure that they are logged in with the safety settings cranked up, but how many people do that? And why is the safety setting defaulting to “Off” ?

In some sections of the media there’s been a growing call for more monitoring of the internet. Instead of parental control, or enabling filters at a router / software / website level, many have asked for “someone to do something about it”. Here in the UK that’s now starting to happen, but the jury is out on just how far the Government blocks are going to go. The Government seems to have give priority to illegal download websites, so major ISP’s have been told to block The Pirate Bay and other torrent sites. Now our PM is going further, trying to enforce a “default on” for network-level porn and “extremist” filtering. By the end of 2014 many bill-payers will have to make a choice – whether to have the “family friendly Government and ISP controlled” internet or the “porn and smut, but still Government controlled” internet.

In the end, it’s either a sign that parental control hasn’t worked or the sheer fact that kids have ultra-portable devices that can access the web when parents aren’t around.

In my opinion, it’s a few different reasons. I grew up in a world where I couldn’t access realistic zombie 3D blood-bath games, but now I see parents allowing 8, 9 and 10 year-olds to play 18-rated games on their PlayStation or Xbox because their friends are. They’re online too, talking to their mates on Xbox live as they slice the head off a zombie and unload bullets into another crowd of baddies. I also grew up in a world where I was protected from the “big wide world” for a certain length of time, with it getting drip-fed at an appropriate point in my development.

Have a guess how many of these Xbox games are rated 18 ?

Are we failing the next generation?

..answer? All of them.

Kids are getting addicted to their gadgets and many parents shrugging their shoulders, simply saying that, “Someone should do something to filter the stuff they see”. Sorry, but for me they should be saying, “Someone should protect them”, and that somone is you.

Restricting the amount of time spent on a gadget, being aware about what they’re doing, creating an open and honest relationship with your child where they can tell you their problems. That’s key. But wait..

Are we failing the next generation?

I’m not super-nanny, I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so. The biggest realization for me was the sheer fact that my son was simply copying me. He saw that I was on my phone. He saw that sometimes I wasn’t listening to him when he wanted to show me something. He saw a Dad hooked onto a phone, laptop and tablet. I’m the example. I’m doing everything I’m telling him off for. Realising that hurts, but it’s helped me change my own behaviour too. Why is it that sometimes, just sometimes, I simply have to finish a tweet or send an email before I go and spend some quality time with my family? What have I turned into? How the hell did that happen?

It’s a daily battle. Not with my son so much now, but with myself. I have to put the phone down. I have to resist the urge to check it every time it buzzes in my pocket. Monkey see, monkey do. If I’m sat in front of the TV for hours, he will think it’s OK to do that too. If I’m on the iPad for ages while he’s trying to get my attention, he’ll argue with me when the situation is reversed.

So, above all, it’s important to get the balance right. Go outside, play football, get on a bike, fall over, perhaps even take your children out for the day to the farm. They’ll usually copy you, so if you spending those few short hours of quality time actively playing, learning and socialising, they’ll turn out alright.