Welcome to a space where you'll find thoughts, opinions, all the latest news and interesting stuff from Beneath the Screen.
Have you ever sat down with your laptop to do something and found yourself three hours later in a daze on YouTube? It’s what we do now instead of daydreaming; who’d bother watching clouds race across the sky when you could be watching a cat in a Manchester United shirt eating a banana. It’s all too easy to waste your time like this but at what stage does it become a problem? The Nightingale Hospital in London now runs a Technology Addiction programme for people whose lives are being adversely affected by computer usage. They’ve dealt with patients from the age of 10 and are currently working with schools with concerns about pupils as young as eight. It’s not hard to see how this could happen. We’re probably all guilty of using technology as a pacifier – just give children an iPad and it’ll keep them quiet for an hour. The problems start when it keeps them too quiet. The British Heart Foundation recently warned that only one in ten toddlers is now active enough to be healthy and most two-year olds don’t even manage one hour of real activity a day. As children get older it becomes difficult to wean them away from their screens, and even more difficult to decide when you absolutely need to take action. There are some signs you need to be aware of. Has your child lost interest in other activities, especially the fun ones? Will they refuse a trip to the park or the zoo so they can stay in their rooms gaming? Are they constantly talking about online activity, or distracted by their phones or tablets? Has the amount of time they spend on their devices increased and are they evasive or argumentative when you bring the subject up? Are they very anxious and irritable when they can’t get online? If the answer to these questions is yes, then there are steps you can take to help. Firstly, why not establish gadget free times and zones. The bedroom would be a good start, particularly since screen glare makes it so difficult to sleep. Meals would be another time when we should encourage everyone, including adults, to put away their phones and just, you know, talk to each other. Gaming should be an earned privilege, not an automatic right, and only granted when other responsibilities have been taken care of. And try not to give in to demands to buy the newest, shiniest bit of kit on the market. Free speech is a human right, owning an iPhone X isn’t. We’re never going to get our children to revert to some fantasy idyllic childhood from the past. We need to be realistic; they’re not going to throw away their iPads and set off on a raft to have adventures or anything. But we can give their young minds a bit of breathing space away from the constant distractions of technology.
Aaah will you look at him, isn’t he sweet? Don’t you just love that adorable innocent smile? The only thing this teddy bear lacks is a red face, and he should have one, because he was involved in a massive security breach where the account details of 800,00 users were leaked online, with many being exploited by hackers. It seems such a lovely idea; your child squeezes the toy and hears a message from you, wherever you are in the world. Then they can send you a message right back. The snag is, of course, that this requires the bear to have a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone, and the company behind it to store your data. The manufacturers of this toy, Cloudpets, had a database which wasn’t protected by either a password or firewall, so hackers were able to access customer details and all the recordings made by parents and kids.
Cloudpets are by no means the only offenders. Lots of parents in Germany bought a Cayla doll for their kids. Cayla is blonde, twinkly eyed, and looks, to be honest, like she’s had a bit too much plastic surgery. She also chatters about ponies and princesses and other things dolls like to talk about. However, Cayla doesn’t just talk, she also listens and records, allowing her to simulate a conversation with her owner. Germany’s telecommunications regulator, the Federal Communications Agency, warned parents that anyone could listen to these private conversations and talk to the child direct via Cayla’s insecure Bluetooth connection. They ordered Cayla to be taken off the shelves.
So how do we ensure that we’re not outsmarted by smart toys like these? It’s difficult, because we have to trust the toy makers to a great extent, and in the cases I’ve mentioned that trust was misplaced. You have to get used to being automatically wary of anything which has a camera, or a microphone, or a Bluetooth or wireless connection. You need to perform a bit of due diligence, by only buying genuine products from reputable manufacturers, and ensure everything is password protected and behind a firewall if possible. And if all else fails you could just buy one of those old-style teddies. They don’t listen to you or answer back, but maybe that’s not always a bad thing.
Do you remember your first experience of social media? Your answer will probably depend on your age. If I tell you I started using Yahoo Messenger in an internet café which charged ten pounds an hour to experience the wonders of the world wide web, you’ll know I’m not in the first flush of youth. The opportunity to share your interests with complete strangers from anywhere in the world was liberating, and as social media platforms became more sophisticated things became even more exciting. But then we started to see the possible downside: it was possible to get yourself into trouble online. If you’ve still got an old Bebo or MySpace page lurking in some long-forgotten corner of the web you’ll know what I mean. Still, embarrassment seemed the worst that could happen, and it was worth the risk, so we plunged in.
A ten-year-old child won’t remember their social debut however; it probably happened before they were born. Their lives have been documented and shared, from baby bump to first step to starting school and the whole thing feels like second nature to them. So, it’s difficult to get across to them that, though sharing is generally something to be encouraged, there are lots of things we should keep to ourselves. This is somewhere adults really need to set an example; parents more so than teachers. Can you really tell your daughter to be careful when posting pictures of her birthday online if your Facebook page has an ultrasound scan of her in your womb? Yes, you can. You can show her that you have privacy settings on your page, that your personal information cannot be accessed by just anyone, and that you think about your personal security before you post. You can tell her that the “About Me” section is a place where you can tell people that you love cats, not a place to give out your address and phone number to the world. But perhaps most importantly, you can show her anything you intend to post about her, and ask if she’s happy for others to see it. The key to all this is communication and respect. Make sure children know you value and respect their privacy, then they’re more likely to feel the same way.
What’s the worst that could happen as a result of a child going online? You don’t have to do much research to come across terrible stories of kids who were assaulted, abducted, or even worse by someone they met through gaming or social media. Fortunately, these sorts of incidents are extremely rare. The worst thing that a child is likely to encounter online is also the worst thing they’re likely to come up against in real life; bullying. Bullying has always been with us, it’s just different now. In less complicated times, if you were being bullied at school you could always retreat to the safety of your bedroom, stick a few Smiths/Nirvana/Radiohead (depending on your era) albums on the stereo and hide from the problem for a bit. Nowadays there’s no escape; bullies can go anywhere your phone goes. And, let’s face it, phones go everywhere.
Statistics on cyberbullying are hard to come by; most of what we know comes from anecdotal evidence. However, a recent survey carried out by Sheffield City Council gives us a snapshot of the problem in one major British city. More than 8,000 children from age 6 to 15, from 79 schools across Sheffield took part in the “Every Child Matters” survey, which the council uses to plan their work with young people. A third of Year Ten girls reported that they had been bullied online, while 16 percent of boys the same age said they’d been bullied too. Cyberbullying is not confined to older children. 15 percent of Year Two’s and 17 percent of Year Fives said they had nasty comments sent to them or posted about them. Pam Smith, of Sheffield Council told Lindsay Pantry of The Yorkshire Post that the survey’s findings were in line with the national picture, and that her authority had an extensive programme of support for schools to ensure children knew the implications of social media and cyberbullying.
Sheffield sets an example which every local authority should follow. There is much good work being done with schools, but even more needs to be done to raise parent’s awareness of what happens to their children online. Whether children are victims of bullying, or are engaged in bullying others, early adult intervention is needed to stop the situation escalating.