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Northern Ireland parents tell why their high-tech youngsters aren't left to their own devices

Odin (5) and Conan Bell (3) on their digital devices. Pic by Peter Morrison
Odin (5) and Conan Bell (3) on their digital devices. Pic by Peter Morrison
Family fun: Claire McNeilly with her daughter, Soley
Soley with her dad John Laverty
Keeping watch: Jonathan Bell and his wife Anna limit the time sons Odin and Conan spend on their devices

After a recent government report revealed that around a third of children aged three to five have their own tablet, two writers give frank accounts of their children's screen time - and their concerns about technology being favoured over teddies and toys.

Claire McNeilly and husband John Laverty live in Belfast with daughter Soley (4). Claire writes:

"When a shooting star falls to earth, someone dies." This is only one of the many dubious pearls of wisdom my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter has gleaned from YouTube.

She'd been listening to her dad tell me about a funeral he'd attended, and she was explaining what must have happened to the deceased.

"You see, Mummy," she told me, in her most earnest voice, "NewTube (that's how she pronounces it) isn't just rubbish. It teaches me lots of things."

Family fun: Claire McNeilly with her daughter, Soley

Like many young children, Soley has a tablet. She got it for her third birthday, just prior to a family holiday; a case of killing two birds with one stone because we needed something to keep her occupied during the three-hour flight.

It's an Amazon Fire Kids Edition, which allows her to read books, play games and watch films that we have chosen.

It can be used also by adults to surf the web - including, of course YouTube - but she doesn't know this yet.

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She thinks 'NewTube' lives in Daddy's phone, therefore getting her little hands on that is the big prize.

"Daddy, can I have your phone?" (The modern-day, in-car equivalent of "are we there yet?")

Dad: "Ask your mum."

Me: "You're not watching that rubbish again."

Soley: "It's not rubbish. It teaches me things."

Me: "Play with your dolls."

Soley: "I'm bored. Are we nearly there yet?

Dad: "We'll be there soon."

Soley: "This is so boring."

Me: "We didn't have phones when we were your age."

Soley: "That was sooo long ago. I'm really bored. What did you have when you were young, Mummy?"

Me: "We counted the colours of cars going by."

Soley: "That's so boring. I'm bored. I'm going to DIE..."

Me: "John, give her the phone."

Soley's relationship with technology is both a source of admiration (for the skills this self-taught tiny genius has honed) and utter panic over what she could be ultimately exposed to in the online world.

It seems outrageous now, but when we were young, we really did count coloured cars on long journeys, or we sang songs and played I Spy.

The tablet world that we now live in is a terrifying vision of the future - and one in which every parent's worst nightmare, the predator, exists.

Soley has ice-skating lessons on Saturdays, gymnastics on Sundays and she goes to Guides on Wednesday evenings, so she has plenty of healthy interests.

But the time constraints on her tablet - up to eight hours a week - is purely down to my uncompromising control of the off switch.

The other day I caught her watching Cinderella, Ariel and Rapunzel compete in a gymnastics competition compered by a Jim Carey-esque presenter who was handing out marks.

My main concern is that, left to her own devices, if you'll excuse the pun, she'd never look at any of her 'real' princess dolls, or any other toys, ever again.

My husband often refers to me, sardonically, as 'The Fun Police'.

I'm the strict disciplinarian, while he's the gadget freak.

I'm not sure how it works, but when Soley has been watching YouTube on the phone, we can review her choices on our 'smart' TV afterwards.

Soley with her dad John Laverty

It can be a laugh to discover she's been watching American kids play with the LOL dolls' treehouse. Which she now desperately wants, of course - because obviously the one she already has "has other people living in it".

She isn't allowed tablet or phone during the week, except on the way home from nursery.

Thanks to the notorious Belfast traffic, a seven-minute journey during off-peak time can translate into an excruciating hour-long trek in 'rush' hour.

But come the weekend, the gloves are off and it's tablet nirvana. She'd clock up over 10 hours, if given the chance.

Saturday is easily the most trying for screen time. Hers is normally from after breakfast (8am) until ice-skating (around 10am).

This weekend we hit a nadir when she insisted on bringing her Fire into the toilet prior to departure because "I need to see the Prince kiss Belle".

Dad let her do it; I began pontificating about "new lows" on discovering this as I rushed past the bathroom door on the way out.

I then refused to let her watch it during the 20-minute trip to the Dundonald Ice Bowl; predictably she has a tantrum until I threaten her with the prospect of no sweets from now until bedtime.

The rest of Saturday is punctuated with mini spurts of avid device watching.

On Sunday we 'forget' the tablet en route to visit my parents, which works on the way there, but we give in and give her the phone on the way home that evening, for a quiet life.

Miss Booksy is a big favourite - she basically takes the hand out of various fairy tales - and so is the excruciating 'Five little princesses jumping on the bed'...

Several years ago, long before Soley came along, John and I were holidaying in Portugal and we used to see a Spanish couple and their little daughter, who was about four, at meal times.

This was around the genesis of the phone zombie era, and this small person was forever sitting at the table, eyes glued to her tablet. We spoke about the awful parenting, bordering on child neglect, we were witnessing.

Not so much now.

Jonathan Bell and wife Anna live in Belfast with their sons, Odin (5) and Conan (3). Jonathan writes:

I've given up on tech. Now, there's an admission for a digital reporter. Ten years ago, had you given me the latest phone, I would have known it inside and out without so much as a glance at instructions.

Now, if something won't do what I want after 18 times of doing the same thing, I give up.

But for the kids, it's a different matter. When I was young, computers took an age to load and there was a need for actual physical space and a desk. There was no losing it down a sofa.

Bell Family 10.jpg
Keeping watch: Jonathan Bell and his wife Anna limit the time sons Odin and Conan spend on their devices

For today's youth, computers should fit in a pocket, tablets should stay away from water and you should be able to tell some automated woman what song you want - or to turn the heating up, as my eldest tries, although we don't have that. Spoilt does not come into it.

Reading that children as young as five are spending hours a day in front of a screen horrifies me.

We have some restraint in our house. I still think our boys are too young, but they can navigate a phone better than me at times.

They get handed a phone or iPad on Saturday and Sunday mornings. And that is mainly down to my wanting a lie-in.

I remember Phillip Schofield, Trev and Simon in my youthful Saturday mornings, but these days it's a multi-millionaire seven-year-old opening toys in poorly made YouTube videos. Appointment viewing for my little warriors.

I've seen kids in prams being taken around the park glued to a screen. I've witnessed children try and swipe at a magazine cover like a tablet to get to another page. So, I'm wary of giving them too much screen time.

They can be great soothers for trying times and children should be at ease with tech to prepare them for what's to come. But I worry the small-screen world will deprive them of what's happening in the real world - and skew their view on life.

We've already had demands from the oldest for a phone as someone was getting one in school for Christmas. But Santa doesn't do that.

The youngest is content to watch Disney's Toy Story for hours on end, if you let him. Recently I've taken a stand and stopped putting on the TV when we get home in the evenings. I'll make the dinner while they play and complain about the TV.

There's maybe some TV at dinner - depending on how they eat - then it's a treat to watch Ironman - the cartoon - before bed. Then it's proper books for bedtime reading.

As the boys' awareness of technology - and their innate ability to just know how something works - develops, I am becoming increasingly, well... terrified.

More specifically, of social media.

Want to know what the latest M&S meal deal offer is, what's good in cinemas, connect with friends, or get something you desperately need the very next day? Facebook, Twitter and Google are where it's at.

Want to share a funny video of someone at school doing something embarrassing, spark frenzy for a music festival that won't exist, rile up the masses, verbally and relentlessly attack someone anonymously, scam someone out of money, rig an election, find out ways to harm yourself, others and society? The internet is the place to go.

You'll not have to search too far, and you'll easily find plenty of cheerleaders.

I spend too much time on my phone, and my boys tell me so. But I can switch it off just for a wrestle - though as the years go by my boys will want less of that and more from their own phones.

And what will it be when they have their own Facebook, Twitter or whatever-it-is by then accounts? Which won't be all that far away.

When I was a kid, if you did something embarrassing, it was forgotten about - at least until the prints were developed, if you were doubly unlucky. Now it never goes away.

There's no telling what the constant stream of information, of opinions, of beautiful people and their beautiful lives and all that hatred is doing to our ways of life.

It's worrying to think there are plenty of sinister elements out there in plain sight, ready to pounce on a moment of vulnerability.

But what'll probably be more damaging for the masses in the next generation is all those people living their idyllic life online, at total odds with the harsh realities of real life.

Belfast Telegraph


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