‘The thing is,” my daughter tells me, “we want to live in the moment. We don’t want to spend our whole lives being pulled into someone else’s life.” At 18, she now chooses to restrict her time online and on the phone, and is planning even more time away from these devices over the summer.
Her best friend has invested in a lock box, into which her phone is deposited for several hours at a time. What my daughter and her friends are realising is this: they want to set their own agenda. The problem with digital stuff is that the default is always someone else’s; ergo, the only way to reassert yourself is to switch off.
Human beings are designed to survive, and to succeed: so it was obvious, really, that young people — who have, after all, never known a world devoid of all this technology — would instinctively understand the pitfalls, and rethink the way they use the potential for connectedness.
It makes me smile, this realisation, because it was all so predictable. For the past few years I’ve regularly been invited to events at my daughters’ comprehensive school at which the furore over the perils of the internet was extolled at an almost hysterical pitch.
Technology, we were told, was out of control. Our children were at huge risk: from bullies, from predators, from swindlers, from unscrupulous advertisers. They were meek little lambs, and the big, ugly internet threatened to swallow them up, and all we parents held dear.
We had to be vigilant, watchful at all times; we had to check what they were up to online; we had to enforce rules so they couldn’t keep secrets from us; and we had to lay down the law about when it was and wasn’t OK to be online.
This week the tour operator Thomas Cook published research showing family time is more than twice as important to children as being able to get online.
By contrast, though, six in 10 adults said they had no interest in hotels that offered a “digital detox”. In other words, it’s adults who have problems with managing technology, and whose lives stand to be damaged by it.
Coping without phones
The kids are cool with it. In my family, we have only ever had one rule (about anything, as it happens), and it is this: no phones at Sunday lunch. It’s not a difficult one, really: it’s just two hours a week, and there’s plenty of what my daughters would call “banter” to distract them from whatever Snapchat is offering. In fact, the girls have coped amazingly well without their phones.
The person it’s tricky for is my husband, who runs a newsroom. His phone is never far away; it’s certainly never switched off. When he’s told off for sneaking a look, his reply might sound reasonable to me, a journalist, but is perplexing for the teenagers. “What would happen if the Queen was to die?” he asks.
“Yes, what would happen?” ask the daughters. “Surely we’d just all find out eventually.” Here’s the truth of it, I reckon. My generation wrung our hands about the effect of technology on our offspring; but the people whom we were really stressing about wasn’t them, it was ourselves.
All those worries were displacement, pure and simple: it was our own ability to handle the risks of the technological era that we were defeated by, and agonising about. The kids are fine.
The good news is that I learn from my teenagers as much as they learn from me (more, probably). So the lockbox is on order, and I’m looking forward to doing as they’ve done and getting my life back.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Joanna Moorhead writes for the Guardian, mostly about parenting and family life.