Many adults admit they're addicted to their smartphones and tablets — but what about our kids? Digital technology and its impact on children is one of the key issues which is being considered by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at its regional conference today in Belfast.
The ATL is particularly concerned because it's receiving a growing number of reports from teachers across Northern Ireland who believe their pupils are spending too much time online and gazing at screens.
We've talked to teachers and families who are at the frontline when it comes to navigating both the heady attractions and the serious risks of digital technology
Mark Montgomery (52), from Richhill, is an ATL official and technology teacher at a secondary school. He has three sons, Adam (22), Nathan (20) and Jordon (17). Both Mark and Nathon admit they've experienced digital addiction. Indeed, for Nathan, his compulsion briefly became all-consuming when he was still a teenager.
Mark says: "I'd say I'm spending around three to four hours a day on my iPad alone outside of school hours, including time spent updating a personal blog.
On the one hand, I often browse in a fairly aimless way. On the other hand, I'm driven by curiosity and I do learn a great deal. My day just isn't complete if I can't get online.
If someone took my iPhone and my iPad away, I'd certainly struggle to survive. So I readily admit I am 'addicted' to some extent.
Technology has its place. But I know that there are children in the school where I work who are on their iPhone or Xbox well into the night.
If it's taken away from them, they won't be in great form the next day – they really need their fix.
I can switch off my iPad and do something different, even if I find it difficult at times. But children don't have that level of self-control – they don't have that ability to switch off and do something different." Nathan says:
"I was home from university for the Easter holiday last year when I hooked up online with friends to play League of Legends, an adrenaline-fuelled game.
Almost immediately, I got completely addicted.
It was the only thing I did apart from eat or sleep. Literally, I'd wake up, play the game all day, go to bed, and then wake up and start playing again.
I was spending 16 hours a day on it and I even insisted that the rest of my family had to bring me my food, so I could continue playing while I ate.
Looking back, it's quite frightening really to think about the very powerful effect that the game had on me.
It's hard to explain why it's so addictive – it just makes you want to go back for more the whole time and it's really hard to break away from it.
You feel you're going to miss something. I just had this fabulous feeling of being 'in the zone' – nothing else mattered at all.
If I'd been unemployed with nothing to do, I dread to think how long I might have ended up like that. Thankfully, after a week, I had to go back to my university course in Belfast and attend my lectures, so I couldn't stay on it constantly.
Most importantly, though, my girlfriend got really annoyed with the amount of time I was spending on the game, and told me to pull myself together and get off it.
That's when I realised I really needed to wise up and quit for good."
Carla Kieran (37) lives in south Belfast and works in marketing. Her seven-year-old daughter, Lily Rose, and four-year-old son, Felix, were both given tablets recently. Carla says her family’s experience of the devices has been really positive. She says:
“Lily Rose was keen to get a tablet like some of her friends and her wish was granted when Santa brought her one. But that led to friction with her younger brother who, understandably, wanted to go on it, too.
We decided, therefore, that it would be better all round if Felix was given one as well, even though he is only four.
What somewhat surprised me is that I haven't had to wrench my kids away from the tablets at all.
They actually don't ask for their tablets that much. If they're still on it after an hour, I'll say, ‘Do you want to do something else now?’ and they put the tablets away, no problem.
But I know I'm lucky with my kids. Other parents do say they have to drag their kids off these things. I make sure I supervise them when they're on their tablets so I'm well aware of what they're doing. And I don't allow my kids to communicate with anyone else online.
Overall, I think digital technology has had a very positive impact for our kids because we have been able to regulate it properly and I do think it is educational.
It's learning through play essentially but just on a different platform from the more traditional ones.”
Sharon (28) lives in north Belfast and has an eight-year old daughter Ann [not their real names]. Ann has both a tablet and an iPod, but Sharon was aghast when she discovered recently what her daughter was getting up to online. She says:
“Ann got her tablet and iPod because all her friends seemed to have them. I obviously tried to monitor what she was doing online, but you can't hover over your child the whole time.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, another parent warned me that Ann had set up a Facebook account. When I checked her tablet, I discovered that she'd actually set up two Facebook accounts, one of which used her real name and had her photo.
And that wasn't all — she'd linked up as Facebook ‘friends' with around 15 children and teenagers, only two of whom she actually knew.
I also discovered she'd been deleting her browsing history and apps which she'd downloaded. Obviously, there could only be one reason for doing that — to try to make sure that I didn't know what she was up to.
I was absolutely gobsmacked. My reaction has been to ban her completely from using her tablet and iPod. I really don't feel I can be sure that's she's going to stay safe online.”
Sue (53) lives in south Belfast and has an 11-year old son, Adrian [not their real names]. She was horrified when she discovered that he had been accessing online pornography when he was just nine. She says:
“I used to allow my son to use my computer to go on Minecraft, which he loves.
The problem is that my computer is up in my study, so it's not possible to supervise him the whole time. That said, the anti-virus programme on my PC said that parental controls were enabled, so I thought everything was okay.
In any case, at the tender age of nine, I really didn't think that Adrian would have the wherewithal to try accessing anything unsavoury. His only interests seemed to be Minecraft and CBBC.
Then one day I went to the Google page which suggests sites which you've visited recently — and was surprised to see two pornographic sites among the selection. I checked the browser history and was stunned by what I found — basically, Adrian had been accessing pornographic websites off and on over a period of six weeks.
Most of what he'd been viewing was simply people with no clothes on — silly, smutty stuff. But, more recently, he'd got onto one site which had images I certainly wish he hadn't seen at that age. I quickly discovered that, while the anti-virus software said parental controls were enabled, they hadn't been properly set up. Now, he has a guest account which blocks access to all those sort of sites and I don't think he'd dare try to seek out that sort of stuff again.”
Emma Quinn (37) (right) is an ATL local representative and teaches a combined P4/P5 class at a primary school in the Newtownabbey area. Many of her pupils have learning difficulties and behavioural issues, which she believes stem from their overuse of digital technology. She says:
“For many of the children I teach, being online or playing video games is their main activity outside of school. Although they're aged between seven and nine, many boys spend most of their free time on violent video games, like Call of Duty, which are meant for older teenagers and adults, and contain bad language.
Facebook is also very popular — a number of pupils have accounts which they're keeping secret from their parents.
The problem for me is that the children's immersion in their digital world is destroying their ability to learn. There's a real lack of motivation in class. They're so used to the instant buzz which you can get with these games and gadgets that they find it really hard to focus on anything which isn't as exciting. Many just want to get back home so they can play on their Xbox or get on their tablet again.
Many of my pupils can't socialise. They haven't learned how to interact with other children because they only interact with their games or with their peers indirectly online. And they're constantly tired because many of them use their gadgets late into the night.
I've had most of the parents in and discussed the issue with them. Nearly all of them agreed their children were spending too much time on games and the internet, and that they would ensure controls were put in place.
But, with the exception of a few parents, nothing has changed. I'm at my wits' end. They really don't seem to understand what the issue is. Part of the problem is that, to the parents, their children may well appear well-behaved because, while they're on their gadgets and games, they're quiet. The real world consequences are only seen when these children come into a school environment, where they don't have their technology to keep them occupied.”
Ciara Fox (46) lives in Omagh. Her twin daughters, Ciara and Eimear, (9), were both given tablets when they were eight years old. It’s a move Ciara (right, with daughters) says she now regrets. She says:
“I'd really tried to hold out against any digital gadgets for my daughters — but they were forever telling me that ‘everyone else' in their class had mobile phones and tablets. So, naturally enough, tablets were among the items on their Christmas present list, and they were delighted when Santa obliged.
But I've been far from delighted with the change in them.
We only allow the girls to use their tablets at weekends, but the devices have now become their major weekend preoccupation. It's really all they want to do and I find it incredibly difficult to drag them away from the tablets. When we're in the car, they used to chatter away and look out the window — now they're just glued to their tablets.
The saddest thing is that they both used to be avid readers, but one has now stopped reading completely. She's just lost interest.
They also spend much less time outdoors at weekends. The only way to get them off their devices is to take them somewhere with no wi-fi.
I wouldn't like to deprive them of something which is clearly a major source of enjoyment — but I do worry that their childhoods are slipping away, and that they're missing out on the sort of active play and adventures on which my childhood was based.”