I'm losing my kids to the internet

Guest blog


Dexter Osbourne* is a dad of three who is desperately worried about the time his children spend online.

I work for a technology company and have to be online every day but when I retire, I'll disconnect from the internet and go back to writing letters instead of emails. Why? Because I believe it's a negative influence, especially on young people.

I've been called a technophobe many times, but actually I'm not scared of technology. I just question the wisdom of colleagues who take 10 minutes on a computer to do a task that I take five minutes to complete without!

child using tabletQuestionable efficiency isn't the reason I despise the internet, though. The problem I have is with social networking.

There is currently an epidemic of self-harming among teenage girls in the UK. In a recent radio discussion about this, professionals were asked why it's a growing problem. They all said the same thing - that the pressure of living in a constantly available online community is too much for many young people.

Online bullying is rife and even so-called friends judge each other instantly and continuously. It seems that some teenagers’ self-esteem is so low that if not enough friends ‘like’ today’s uploaded selfie, it has such an impact that they harm themselves, or consider it.

It seems to me that teenage girls (and boys) are being stitched up in A&E and then sent back to their online communities. If social networking is at least in part responsible for some of this behaviour, why do professionals and parents feel unable to call for a restriction on internet access?

My children seem to spend so much time on the internet. Yes, they allocate 20 minutes of their day to a family dinner, but apart from that they are cloistered in their bedrooms with their screens. I've tried turning off the router and restricting their online time but the protests are so long and loud that eventually I give in.

Our dinner-table conversations can be fascinating, but they tend to be abruptly cut off as the children dash upstairs to get back to their online game or chat with their ‘friends’.

I miss talking with them about ordinary stuff, which is much more likely to happen when you spend time together and have shared experiences. Our lack of everyday contact also means that it's harder to connect when bigger issues need airing.

Whenever I express my anti-internet views, most people counter them by saying it has great access to information. That doesn't happen in our house. My children use the internet almost exclusively for gaming, music and social networking. If I suggest they use it for homework or to explore ideas about life, the universe etc., they just look blank and roll their eyes.

From what I’ve seen, the access to information online is a disincentive to learn. My children often tell me that they don't need to know something because 'it's all online'. Except they don't look it up!

When I was a child in the 60s and 70s, I had a set of encyclopaedias at home, which I used for researching school projects. I can still remember looking up tyrannosaurus rex one rain-soaked Sunday afternoon and then being side-tracked by a piece on a form of government called tyranny. We don't necessarily need the internet to develop intellectual curiosity and broaden our knowledge.

I listened recently to an episode of Desert Island Discs on the radio that featured the wildlife cameraman responsible for much of the underwater footage in the late Sir Richard Attenborough's documentaries.

He explained how, on arriving in a foreign country, he would immerse himself in the experience. Meanwhile, his younger colleagues would head off to the nearest internet café.

By remaining constantly connected with their home country, he believed they were not fully connecting with their temporary home. Sadly, I can see my own children taking a gap year to travel - along with their internet cocoon.

girl on laptop outdoorsTo me, the internet is a social experiment that's running out of control with no discussion, public agenda, checks or balances. I think the problem is that, until now, parents have generally had greater wisdom about most things based on experience. But because the internet is new, and young people are usually more adept at using it than my generation, we feel unable to take charge as we normally would if our children were doing something we felt was bad for them.

Even so, why do we allow our children to have such a high level of communication that is entirely lacking in body language and face-to-face interaction. You can’t ‘know’ somebody you’re chatting with online. You just can’t. It excludes that whole level of real communication that kicks in when you’re in the same physical space as someone. Just look at how many emails and text messages are misinterpreted.

TV was new to our parents and they still felt able to restrict our exposure to it, and as children we accepted that. In most households there was only one TV and kids’ programmes only ran from 4-6pm, so it was self-regulating. But now there is a round-the-clock treasure trove of content, and it’s available everywhere.

The internet is moulding the minds of young people in ways that we can't fully understand. What I do know is that my children now measure friendship in clicks of a mouse. They think they are so connected when, in reality, I believe they are the most disconnected generation in history. That makes me sad.

It's as if we’re all bewitched. Nobody dares to stand up and say: this is wrong, this is bad, this is unhealthy. Some families are trying to go cold turkey - I’ve just read one mum’s account of how she and her family spent six months without the internet. But how many parents would be prepared to go to such lengths? Just the thought of the consequences is enough to put most of us off.

I think it’s time for us as a society to limit access for our children. It's not just social media that's the problem - there's a mass of unsuitable content from porn to violence to terrifying political and social views that they may come across.

In my opinion this is a public health issue and we need to address it as we would any other public health issue, such as alcohol, drugs or obesity. So I believe we should be putting pressure on those in power to assess and regulate what's online, and help us.


*Name has been changed.

Gertrude
I can understand why children

I can understand why children (mine are teenagers) find the internet irresistible: it gives them continuous, instant access to friends and stuff we might prefer them not to see. But unless I’m constantly turning off routers and confiscating keyboards, laptops and mobile phones, it’s impossible to control their access. I know I’m not the only parent who has this problem.

touche
You're not wrong about

You're not wrong about cyberbullying - I've just read about a new study that suggests the number of children who've been bullied online has doubled in the past year. Grim.

Gertrude
I'm sure most teenagers would

I'm sure most teenagers would say they love the internet, but I wonder how that squares with the new research I've just seen from ChildLine, which shows that online pressures can be detrimental to children's self-esteem. Hmmm.

Thomas
The other day I was

The other day I was travelling on the underground - not particularly crowded - when I saw something that really sent a glow through me. The mother was in one seat reading a book and her small son was alongside snuggled against her, also reading a book. Alongside him were what I assumed to be his two older sisters. Both were reading books. The mother often turned to her son and pointed things out. There was not a screen, headset, wire or gormless expression to be seen. All four looked content and absorbed - the children totally well behaved.

I had the idea that the children were not deprived of the internet at home, but suspected it was regulated in some way, say to 45 minutes of an evening. Whatever, this sort of rare sight does give one hope that there are families who do not succumb to technology at the exclusion of all else and have somehow found a way. My interpretation of what I saw might not be entirely correct, but I think internet usage might well peak at some point and I think there are a greater number of people on public transport reading print books again as well as Kindle books.

I can totally sympathise with Dexter's concerns and share most of his views. I hope he finds a way. It is good to find someone prepared to speak out about this massively serious issue in such a forthright way.

LogartySal
@Thomas thank you for sharing

@Thomas thank you for sharing your experience on the underground – it gives me hope!

I suppose parents whose children spend most of their lives online can either turn off the router – and endure the flak that inevitably ensues – or sit it out until they grow out of it. I don't see any signs of that happening with the teenagers I know, though…

It's an ongoing discussion in our house: time spent on social media or gaming becomes so addictive that teenagers can find vital everyday stuff, such as homework, household chores and family mealtimes, terribly dull in comparison. As a result, the simple but essential connections that occur when you're studying, cooking or chatting with the people you live with can fall by the wayside. And that makes me feel very sad.

I think there is some evidence of a backlash emerging, albeit only in 'celeb land'. On Woman's Hour recently, Kate Winslet talked about how she has banned social media in her home: 'I don't feel I need it and neither does my husband, and as a consequence, why would the children? They don't need Instagram and Facebook. And Twitter, they just don't need it. They're children. They should be outside climbing trees and dancing in the rain and being kids. Childhood: you can't have it again, you don't get it back. It happens now.'

Thomas
I like the Kate Winslet quote

I like the Kate Winslet quote LogartySal. In fact it made me wonder if it was her and her children I saw on the tube! Right number but gender and ages slightly skewed. There are more and more people on the radio cautioning against the use of Twitter, particularly following the Stephen Fry comments at the BAFTA's.

LogartySal
What a coincidence that would

What a coincidence that would have been! She sounds like a great mum to me.

Ironically, personally I like Twitter, but I think it should be used with care: it's so easy to get it wrong.

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