Last month, France decided to ban mobile phones in schools, including in senior classes, calling it a requirement of ‘public health’. While usage was already prohibited in classrooms, kids were allowed to use them on breaks, at lunch and between lessons. But after noticing that children were busy staring at screens rather than playing a sport in their free time, it was decided a ban from age 6 was in order.
There is no greater challenge to modern parenting than the smart phone. There is an argument that in an era of terrorism a phone is necessary for children in case of emergencies, to call their parents. That need could be met with a good old-fashioned Nokia, that has only a call and SMS function. In most Indian schools, students’ phones are confiscated immediately, if found. A few international institutions use the iPad as a teaching device and are more lenient when it comes to technology but all are in agreement, for the adolescent age group, there’s nothing to be gained by unrestricted access to electronic devices. A conversation I witnessed recently, between three 15-year-olds discussing a fourth’s legion of followers and ‘likes’ on Instagram was terrifying, in the sense that their interactions seemed just as hollow as most adult conversations online are: full of shallow praise and profusions of affection, meaningless tripe that costs nothing since all it needs is the click of a button. It’s perfectly fine for jaded adults but for kids who have yet to form important bonds, they need face-to-face conversations, even arguments. That’s much more likely to happen while dorking around with a ball, or having impassioned discussions on books and movies.
Speech, vocabulary and ideas develop by talking and listening, not by gazing dumbfounded, into coloured, graphic oblivion.
It’s not all bad, concedes Scott Steinberg, in his book Parenting High-Tech Kids: The Ultimate Internet, Web and Online Safety Guide. Apps, video games and high tech toys are, let’s face it, far more fun and exciting tools for kids to learn from. Steinberg advocates 30 to 60 minutes of screen time a day for tweens and says with the right guidance and supervision, it can boost creativity. Of course, to use technology for optimum effect, the parent will have to make an effort and take a crash course on the software options that teach maths or history in inventive ways. The issue arises when parents who are busy eking out a living, don’t have the time to monitor their children’s digital lives and cell phones usually end up getting used for the worst reasons. As a diversion to boredom. Cheating becomes remarkably easy. Games with those shrill tones or just surfing the Internet leave you feeling vaguely dissatisfied, all too full yet empty, at the same time. The access to pornography, and an over dependence on social media at a vulnerable age is deeply worrying. I don’t know one parent who doesn’t struggle with managing their children’s screen time. A broad ballpark, according to Steinberg in his book, is never more than 120 minutes a day, no matter what the age.
There are no universal rules for parenting, and that applies to regulation, or lack of, towards electronics. In the holidays, my six-year-old rolls out of bed, opens her tablet and goes to her own profile called ‘Kids” on Netflix. She can’t tie her shoelaces or brush her hair but she knows the WiFi password, and navigates her way with any remote or app. I have seriously considered disconnecting my Tata Sky and my WiFi to put an end to this daily irritant of arguments that end badly. Obviously every generation will have a different experience growing up and maybe, this inexplicable attachment to a screen, is just how it was meant to be for today’s kids. As parents, we have to wonder whether it’s nostalgia for a childhood that was much less complicated that makes us see this widespread adoption of technology so suspiciously. Or if we are actually in danger or raising a nimble-fingered, cryptic generation that’s speaking and listening less.