Technological advances have had a huge impact on family life, writes Rory Fitzgerald
Our children are increasingly wired — in every sense. Children nowadays are intimately familiar with complex technology, often literally before they can walk.
My two-year-old can turn on the iPad, punch in the access code, open his favourite Peter Rabbit app, read the animated story, and then switch to a different app to play piano. His grandmother would have great difficulty in doing the same thing.
In the car, many parents have little LCD screens fitted facing the back seats to sedate their little darlings on long journeys. Young children nowadays surf the internet to look for the latest Lego kits.
There are whole television channels aimed at babies. Many older kids practically live on social networks. Most have mobile phones and spend hours texting. Gaming devices are a staple in almost all homes.
Parents too, are increasingly wired up, and are often lost in laptops, mobile phones, Facebook or television — often to the detriment of real communication with their children.
There are indisputable educational benefits to modern technology. As well as making life easier, many of these devices do manage to make learning fun — and even addictive.
Nowadays, basic skills in technology use are as important as literacy and numeracy. Some schools are switching over from paper schoolbooks to iPads.
Instead of a sackful of heavy books, kids will just have their textbooks on iPads or Kindles, which are small, light tablet devices that can store millions of pages of text, as well as videos and music.
This revolution in the way we live, work and communicate has all happened rapidly, in an extremely short space of time. Facebook, Twitter and high-speed broadband have only become widespread in the past few years.
There are immense advantages to technology, which can often have indirect educational benefits: the British National Literacy Trust recently found that children who blog, text or use social networking websites are more confident about their writing skills.
The study found that of children aged 9 to 16, 24 per cent had their own blog, and 73pc used instant messaging services to chat with friends.
Having a phone means children can always contact their parents in an emergency. However, there is a darker side to the presence of technology.
Research has shown that using high-end gadgets gives the user a dopamine hit. This means that using such technology may be essentially physically addictive.
There is increasing evidence that technology use changes brain development, and the way we think, as well as on our emotional state — and even on our sleeping patterns.
Internet addiction disorder is now a recognised medical condition. Sufferers can experience distress when removed from their technology: withdrawal symptoms can even include tremors, obsessive thoughts, and involuntary typing movements.
A recent Chinese study used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning technique to look at the brains of internet addicts.
They found that internet-addicted teenagers had damage to the ‘white matter’ nerve fibres which can affect emotions, decision making, and self-control.
With many children now spending over seven hours per day in front of a screen, internet addiction is likely to increase markedly in the coming years.
The effects of technology on children’s developing brains are only now being examined, however, the social and emotional effects are increasingly understood.
A recent Michigan State University study has found that high levels of technology use, particularly videogame use, is associated with lower overall psychological well-being.
However, one exception was socialising online, which could in fact lead to increased well being.
With the advent of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, many children are largely substituting real friendships for virtual ones.
Writing in the academic journal The Future of Children, American researchers have found evidence that ”the ease of electronic communication may be making teens less interested in face-to-face communication with their friends”.
However, technology is wonderful in enabling children to see and speak to distant relatives — even those on the other side of the world.
Another advantage is that shy children often find it easier to communicate online — even with their classmates. This can in time lead to the blossoming of real-world friendships.
Cyber bullying involves bullying via digital technologies like mobile phones and computers.
It is different to ‘old-fashioned’ bullying and can be harder to spot and more difficult to stop. It can be very sinister and threatening. It can involve prank calls to your child’s mobile phone or the sending of inappropriate images to their email address.
It can occur day or night and, if an embarrassing video or comment is posted online, the whole world can see the child’s humiliation, which can be extremely distressing.
It is well understood that technology use and the lack of exercise and outdoor play it implies, can cause child obesity and can hinder physiological development.
The Irish programme Switch Off-Get Active aims to combat the ill effects of technology on children through a 16-week programme to increase physical activity and reduce screen time and BMI in primary school children.
Children’s co-ordination and agility is increasingly hampered by a lack of real-world horse play. Studies also show that emotional development and social skills can be impaired by too much screen time.
The effects of the radiation from mobile phones and wi-fi is as yet poorly understood, but may ‘possibly’ cause cancer (see Health Matters column opposite).
A recent American study found that 42pc of 10- to 17-year-olds have been exposed to online pornography in the past year. High-profile cases have recently come to light where children were groomed by paedophiles who befriended them online.
Another way that technology can profoundly impact children is by their parent’s use of it.
If parents spend their evenings engrossed in iPads, laptops, smartphones or television, they are giving less attention to their children. However, another more disturbing way that technology can affect children is when it causes their parents to split up.
American research has found that Facebook is cited in one in five US divorce cases. Sometimes adults become engaged in extra-marital affairs by contacting ‘old flames’ online who they otherwise would not have met.
There are, in fact, now dating websites specifically aimed at married people who want to have an affair.
Sometimes too distance can develop in a relationship due to the overuse of technology by one spouse.
See the column opposite for some suggestions as to how to enjoy the benefits of technology while avoiding its ill effects.
Guidelines for family-friendly technology use
From laptops to smartphones to gaming consoles, the technology we use is affecting how we live in profound ways — for both good and ill.
A few simple changes in the way you approach technology can help you enjoy all its benefits and keep your family safe from its worst effects.
Parents must use their own judgement and common sense, but below are some suggestions for a healthier relationship with technology.
Internet safety and health experts advise setting clear rules and procedures for children such as the following:
Limit your child’s daily ‘screen time’ to under two hours and ensure they get adequate levels of exercise and outdoor play.
Minimise mobile phone use by under-16s.
Have a family-wide ‘technology ban’ — including TV, texting and the internet — for at least two hours every evening so everyone gets to chat, play and relax together, without technological distractions.
When choosing the inevitable gaming console, pick one that requires full body movement and can give some level of exercise, such as the Nintendo Wii. Use should nonetheless be limited carefully.
Ask your child to tell you immediately if they ever experience cyber bullying or hostile text messages.
Use effective internet filtering software to protect against unsuitable content being accessed.
Keep your internet-connected computer in a family room with the screen facing outward so it can be supervised.
Only use child-friendly search engines like kids.yahoo.com and askkids.com
Avoid having TVs or computers in the child’s bedroom.
Asking your child to tell you if they accidentally visit unsuitable websites, so you can block them.
Let children know that it’s never okay to use or receive abusive or threatening language in an online forum.
Children must take breaks from the computer every 30 minutes.
Tell children never to download unknown files from the internet without your permission.
Never arrange to meet an online friend in person without your knowledge and permission.
Never to respond to unsolicited messages or spam.
Not to give out information as to age and gender, or any personal information especially address, registration details and bank details.
Never visit online chatrooms that are not fully moderated or supervised.
Parents should be aware of their own internet use and how it may affect their relationships with other members of the family.
Parents should report any potentially illegal content to hotline.ie
For more information, see internetsafety.ie