Whenever my cross-generational family get together (as we did last week on holiday), there is an obligatory conversation about the impact of technology on young people. This is typified by members of the older generation bemoaning how much time children spend on their devices, how they overshare, how much worse bullying is these days, the dangers of seeing inappropriate content – feel free to add your own Mail-esque scare story here...
There is no question I have a responsibility to manage my children’s technology use, in the same way as I do their eating habits, their exercise, their manners – we set rules – that’s what parents do! We govern how much time our children spend on phones, iPads, TVs, video games etc. We advise them on etiquette: not allowing screens at dinner, making them thank people personally rather than texting.
There’s plenty of advice and research available for parents concerned about their children’s screen time – but who is governing the parents or the grandparents? Who is reprimanding them when they interrupt a conversation to answer a text or check a football score, when they get their phone out for dinner, upload an inappropriate photo, gush about their grandchildren on Facebook or disappear for two hours to feed their Candy Crush addiction (is that just me?).
Frankly, if there were a league table of screen usage in my family, the kids would be at the bottom, not the top (let’s not tell them that, obviously). Hypocrisy aside, there is a serious issue here: who is responsible for helping me manage my technology usage? How long I look at my screen? What sensitive data I share?
The NHS Live Well campaign provides advice on so many areas of my life – ‘Over 100 topics on healthy living’ – but technology is nowhere to be found. Various studies have found that adults spend between nine and 11 hours a day using electronic devices (including an hour watching digital videos), but there has been precious little research done on how that affects me.
Understandably, the government and health professionals are reluctant to offer screen time recommendations to adults lest they be accused of running a nanny state. And with office workers typically spending eight hours in front of a computer, it’s more a case of mitigating the risks of screen time (aching bodies, weight gain, stress and sleep troubles) rather than reducing it.
Yet when there is so much information about what I eat and how much exercise I should do, why not provide a bit more help about screen time, technology etiquette and social media? Many adults take a rosy view of their own habits – one study found that 78 per cent believe they are good technology role models for their children and two-thirds said that dividing their attention between devices at work had no detrimental affect on their performance. But I think this may be unrealistic – and I certainly can’t be the only parent who’s been told off by their own children for ignoring them while I scroll through my phone.
So who helps us take responsibility for our screen time? I wonder if this is a space for digital brands to explore, particularly as more communications and products become screen-based. Should we be researching the impacts, providing advice over usage? As more brands recognise their role as a ‘good citizen’, I think it befits them to assist their customers in maintaining a healthy balance.
How they give this advice without appearing intrusive or offering mixed messages (‘here’s our great new app! Don’t use it too much’), I’m not so sure. But as the technological revolution rolls on relentlessly, it’s not just our kids in need of a screen break every now and then.