Technology killing conversation: Pls stp txtng @ the meal table!
22:36 GMT, 11 July 2012
The creeping invasion of electronic devices used to be a bit of a joke in our family home. At first I found it mildly funny to see not one but three identical iPads in my kitchen and a cluster of mobiles, their wires festooning the work surfaces by the sink.
I even felt a burgeoning pride that my daughters were far more adept at accessing our complicated gadgets than their father and I were.
I am not sure precisely when this positivity became cloaked by a deepening despair, exactly when I began to view technology as the enemy. But I would say I have now been fighting — and losing — an ongoing battle to entice my ever-entralled children from its grip for more than a year.
Technological distraction: Mobiles are killing dinner conversation
Though I still insist on meals round the kitchen table, particularly at weekends, I know they are more of a dreaded routine than a thing of pleasure for my daughters, Tiana, 13, and Deia, eight.
Though Tiana can be polite and talkative, ‘Can I go now’ is the question I know is coming as soon as she puts down her knife and fork.
She cannot hide how difficult it’s been for her to resist looking at her mobile throughout the family gathering. She is itching to be back in her room.
There, I am aware, she succumbs to the lure of the screen on any number of devices. Often, when I kiss her goodnight, I find her mobile, like a malicious alien, aglow on her pillow.
I have long given up on the girls helping me cook or lay the table as a matter of course, as I did with my mother. Instead, I find myself yelling up the stairs to lure them out of their rooms or away from a screen.
About 6.5 billion text messages are sent in the UK every month
Equally, I am used to coming home, dying to let off steam and talk about my day, to be met by silence: one daughter is in her room, another glazed in front of the television.
I was therefore cheered to find I am not the only parent who has come to deplore the increasingly invasive role of technology in their family life.
The Centre for the Modern Family, a think-tank established in November 2011 by Scottish Widows, aims to improve the understanding of modern challenges facing the British family. It has commissioned a report on Family Resilience and its findings on the impact of technology on family life make chilling reading.
An astonishing third of Britons use texting as the most common way of contacting family members under the same roof and almost half of 18 to 34-year-olds admit to using text as the most common way of communicating with the family they live with, while one in ten uses emails and Facebook.
Even though I am clearly not alone, as a parent I constantly blame myself for my children’s fascination with technology. Why am I so feeble at restricting digital games and TV
Writer Charlotte Metcalf with her daughter Deya
If I’m honest, there is a double-bind here. For example, I am guilty of being sometimes relieved that my daughters play video games for hours, enabling me to finish writing an article or start preparing a meal.
But every so often I’m brought to my senses. Two years ago, I was furious when I discovered Tiana had posted a sultry, pouting photograph of herself on Facebook when she was 11 — but pretending to be 15.
Her father quickly befriended her on Facebook, much to her embarrassment, in a lame attempt to understand her world, but mostly her page leaves him baffled and out of touch.
Nowadays, parents can be totally in the dark as to with whom, how or when our children communicate.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, who specialises in the physiology of the brain, told me: ‘It’s a big ask, but we’ve all got to work together to create a more stimulating environment than a two-dimensional screen.
We are going through an unprecedented change in the way we live and our brains are superlatively evolved to adapt, so obviously all the advances in technology are going to have a big impact on British families.’
She described how television’s role in the family has changed. ‘There would be one TV set in the house, almost always in the sitting room, the occasional family gathering point. It was the equivalent of a piano in Victorian times, a source of shared family entertainment.'
‘At the same time, bedrooms tended to be unheated places where you slept and to which you were sent as a child as punishment. Now children aren’t exiled to their bedrooms but retreat there from choice — and there’s usually some sort of screen in them.’
When I ask what advice she has for parents like me, she says: ‘The best thing you can do for your children is read them stories.’
The trouble is gadgets retain a magical magnetism far beyond any book.
And there’s another problem when books and writing are neglected for text speak and screens. The majority of the texts Tiana sends to her friends would be indecipherable to many adults, consisting of misspelt phrases and jargon.
Perhaps it’s the logical evolution from adults telephoning needlessly from a train to impart the obvious information: ‘I’m on a train’ — that compulsion to communicate without actually saying anything of value.
But I am driven mad by how difficult it seems to have an ordinary family conversation. ‘You ruined my play-date Mummy!’ shouted my eight-year-old two days ago after I insisted she and her friend ate at the table with me. ‘We wanted to eat in front of the TV!’
‘I wouldn’t have got to know your friend then!’ I replied. Her scorn was withering.
What worries me is how few memories the children will treasure if they spend their time alone with a machine. I want my daughters to inherit the same simple pleasures I enjoyed as a child — baking messily, building sandcastles, paddling, walking in the park.
I still do all these things with my daughters, but I feel, especially with my teenager, that I am on borrowed time and that she is tactfully waiting for the opportunity to rush back to her friends — on a screen.