Image Credit: Getty Images

Not long ago I was sitting on a train going from Dublin to Galway. A mother and baby came to sit across the aisle and began feeding. In a wonderful display of dexterity, she held the bottle in one hand and clutched a mobile phone in the other. Out of the corner of my eye, I observed her with a researcher’s curiosity.

Ethnography is the immersive study of people and cultural phenomena, when the researcher is embedded in the social group being studied. As a cyberpsychologist, I am living in a continual ethnographic study. Hardly an hour goes by when I don’t notice how people are interacting with technology.

Ten or 15 minutes passed. The mother looked exclusively at her phone while the baby fed. The baby was gazing foggily upward, as babies do, and looking adoringly at the mother’s jaw, as the mother continued to gaze adoringly at her device. For half an hour, as the feeding went on, the mother did not make eye contact with the infant or once pull her attention from the screen of her phone.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many millions of mums and dads around the world were no longer looking directly into the eyes of their babies while they were feeding or talking to them. What if that direct contact was only half or a quarter as much as the days when my generation was raised? How will this seemingly small behavioural shift play out over time? Could it affect a whole generation of babies? Could it change the human race?

Nobody seems to be even talking about this issue, except those with an interest in cyberpsychology. But someday there might be a notice on the screen of all mobile phones that says: “Warning: Not Looking at Your Baby Could Cause Significant Developmental Delays.”

Have you heard that the esteemed body of the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen use, including television, for children under two? No TV for babies. No apps with funny cartoons on a parent’s or babysitter’s mobile phone. And yet there’s been an explosion in electronic media marketed directly at infants: a multi-million-dollar industry selling computer games for very young children — some as young as nine months. The tablet is now ubiquitous as a “toy” for toddlers, and parents often marvel at the swiftness with which their child learns to swipe a touchscreen. Unlike a desktop or laptop, a tablet can be used by any child who is old enough to point a digit.

The fundamental problem, I believe, is the modern perception (or misconception) that children need to be kept busy and occupied at all times. Giving a child a tablet is a convenient way for parents or carers to grab a few minutes, or an hour, for themselves. What’s the harm? Besides, what about all those other parents giving their children these little handy screens? Millions of people can’t be wrong, can they? But they are.

This is a field I’ve researched in depth, and in 2015 I published a review paper: “Cyber Babies: The Impact of Emerging Technology on the Developing Infant”. It’s hard to know where to start, as I begin unpacking all my concerns about cyber babies using devices. Somewhere along the line, a misinterpretation of neuroscience has led parents to believe that all stimulation for a child is good. Even if these devices in themselves are not proven to be harmful, there is significant harm simply in the lack of time spent doing things in the real world that are known to be important for development.

It has been shown repeatedly that at least 60 minutes a day of unstructured play — when children entertain themselves, either alone or with another child and without adult or technological interference — is essential. This is when a child uses imagination and creativity, when he or she practises decision-making and problem-solving, develops early maths concepts, fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

In Britain, an escalation of problems associated with tablet use among pre-school children has been reported by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. These include developmental delays in attention span, motor skills and dexterity, speaking and socialisation — as well as an increase in aggressive and antisocial behaviour, obesity and tiredness. A growing number of young children are beginning school without enough dexterity to pick up and play with building blocks.

One gathering of teachers in Manchester called for help with “tablet addiction”. A teacher in Northern Ireland described pupils who were allowed to play computer games excessively before bed arriving in class the next day with what you might call a “digital hangover”, and attention spans “so limited that they might as well not be there”.

Jo Heywood, headmistress of a private primary school in Ascot, Berkshire, has been outspoken about her observation that children are starting school at five and six years old with the communication skills of two and three-year-olds, presumably because their parents or carers have been “pacifying” them with iPads rather than talking to them. This is seen in children from all social backgrounds.

A 2015 consumer report shows that most American children get their first mobile phone when they are six years old. This shocks me. This is before what in psychology we call the age of reason, when a child enters a new state of logic and begins to understand the surrounding world — learning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice. Now, with a phone in hand, these children are being catapulted into cyberspace before they are psychologically capable of making sense of it. We can’t even make sense of it yet.

We do know, though, that technology has changed childhood in innumerable ways. Cyberspace is where they are learning to read, doing their schoolwork, dressing up avatars, watching cartoons and meeting friends both fictional and real. A large US study of eight to 12-year-olds in 2014 found that a quarter reported using Facebook, even though you are meant to be 13 or older to be eligible to activate an account.

The psychologists and teachers behind the report concluded that the results were troubling: “Engaging in these online social interactions prior to necessary cognitive and emotional development that occurs throughout middle childhood could lead to negative encounters or poor decision-making.”

Facebook and other social networks have always claimed that it is “almost impossible” to identify a child, and therefore they can’t actively police their own rules. I would argue that, when it comes to minors, there is an urgent need to develop more effective ways of verifying the age of a new user on social networks. The real-world example would be an off-licence that’s not allowed to sell alcohol to underage individuals. Would it be OK if the sales assistant didn’t believe it was necessary to ask for proof of age?

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was known to keep a tight lid on the use of screens in his own household. But burdening parents with all the responsibility of cyber-regulations is like asking them to raise their families in a lawless environment, a cyber frontier where they must become their own sheriff.

Age-inappropriate content is everywhere online, and any tech-savvy child knows how to access it. In the real world, children are prevented from buying tickets to films with sexual and violent content. Printed pornography is kept in special areas of convenience stores. So why is it so easy to find online?

Perhaps the fact that cyberspace is not a physical space with tangible dangers creates an illusion of safety. We access cyberspace from the comfort of our homes and offices, cars and trains — places that are all regulated carefully. But cyberspace offers countless risks. Even the basic laws governing gambling, drugs, pornography and breast implants don’t apply. We need to do more for families — and stop expecting parents to paddle their own canoe.

Children need government protection in cyberspace, just as they are protected in real life. The US military has a NIPRNet (pronounced “nipper net”), basically a private internet. Why isn’t there a NIPRNet for kids, a protected place where they can go to explore safely?

Many experts argue that the positives of the internet outweigh the damage. If we accept that children are online, will be staying online for greater and greater amounts of their lives, and are by and large having useful and positive experiences there, then can we accept responsibility for the damaging things, the disturbing content that could have lasting ill effects on an entire generation?

I would argue that this particular risk is too great. We cannot gamble with the future development of children who will someday be adults who weren’t cared for and brought up in the best way. We risk raising a generation of what I describe as “cyber-feral children”.

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2016