It was 1982. Two time travellers lay in their beds, pressing the buttons on their velvet upholstered headboards, imagining that it was the year 2000 and we were flying around in our rockets. Back then I don’t think my sister and I could even begin to imagine where technology would take us.
A decade on and I had my very first regular babysitting job. Every Friday and Saturday night, I would have uninterrupted access to unlimited games of Tetris on my next door neighbour’s Super Nintendo Entertainment System (or SNES as it was known). I became good at it, incredibly good at it, so good that one evening in the mid-90s, I reached the hallowed maximum score screen with a blocky image of a fireworks display behind a depiction of the Taj Mahal. Hours were very quickly lost playing that game, thanks to my charges being very well-behaved children. Back at home, the closest that I got to such excitement was playing ‘Punch and Judy’ on my mum and dad’s Commodore 16.
Roll the clock forward another 5 or 6 years to my 21st birthday – you can only begin to imagine my surprise and delight when my parents bought me my first mobile phone – an MN-1 in gold. Gold. Prior to this the most sophisticated gadgetry in our student house had been my friend Gabby’s pager (can’t think why they ever went out of fashion). I remember the excitement of sending and anticipation at receiving text messages. Oh yes – I had arrived.
Zip ahead another three years and the internet was well and truly taking hold, you can read about my adventures on Yahoo Chat here. I remember waiting for my dial-up connection and all the sound effects that went with it fondly. A future without technology was difficult to imagine.
February 2018 – the here and now.
My nearly 15 year old arises from his slumber and comes down for his breakfast. His phone is in his hand. He eats his breakfast while attempting to chat with his mates on Snapchat and his preferred way to spend his evenings is on his X-box, playing football games with his mates, and jeering along with them. My 12 year old likes to spend his days watching videos of people playing videogames on his phone (the mind boggles) and parodies using his favourite Lego mini-figures (some of which are highly unsuitable for children, I’ve quickly realised). My 10 year old aspires to do all of these activities and more as soon as he is able to (the unwritten rule is phone ownership comes just in time for the Year 6 residential).
I’ve had enough.
It started with small things, like #1 son coming down late for his tea because he’d been ‘in the middle of a game’. Then we noticed changes in his general demeanour in terms of how he interacted with us on an interpersonal level. Conversations were frequently taking place through the bedroom door. The verbal aggression from his interactions ‘on the field’ was gradually beginning to spill over into his exchanges with us and his brothers. This seemed to be beyond the expected teenage angst and a change in his behaviour on a deeper level. On a week away from his gadgets in Tenerife, he was a totally different child, more engaged with us and everything around him. However, immediately on our return, he was up in his bedroom, door shut, so happy to be reunited with his ‘baby’.
It was then that I knew that something had to change.
While I totally get that he’s going to want to spend time on his own and to separate himself from the family unit, which is a completely natural part of being a teenager, we needed to redress the balance. At Christmas, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when gadgets didn’t make an appearance on any of our three’s lists, with #1 son asking for a bike, which pleased us greatly, and sons 2 and 3 wanting their body weights in Lego.
It was time to introduce a few ground rules about gadgets in general:
When the boys go to bed, so do their gadgets (except the gadgets stay downstairs)
Homework happens before gameplay
Gadget time is time-limited and balanced with everything else they’ve got going on
I probably sound like an officer from the gadget police; I guess what I’m trying to do is strike that balance between their actual social lives and their virtual social lives. I’m not worried about my son playing shoot-em-up games and being influenced by them; I’m more worried about these transient things becoming a focus at a time in his life where there are other important things going on, like his forthcoming GCSEs and work experience. I want him to have a life on and offline.
Reassuringly, research from the Oxford Internet Institute (yes, there is one) based on feedback from 120, 000 15 year olds suggests that the optimum amount of screen time before wellbeing decreases is 4 hours 17 minutes per day (I have my stopwatch on standby). Findings also suggested that there were many benefits to having an active online life for example, opportunities to harness creativity and practise social skills.
So we’ve reached an understanding, he does the important stuff first and then he can check back in online. The last thing I want is for him to miss out on what’s going on with his mates but I also want him to spend time with his rotten old dad and myself and his little brothers who look up to him (as do I – lanky devil) and also get out there into the real world. As I type this he’s sat on his laptop next to me reading up on the Second World War.
Now I wonder how much I’d get a SNES for on Ebay…
What are your tech house rules and how do you manage it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.