Is screen time wrecking family life? To my shame I know the answer

    16 September 2015

    Every now and then, amid the blizzard of health reports that bombard us on a seemingly hourly basis, one strikes a chord and makes you vow to change your ways.

    That happened to me today, when it emerged that children are not only picking up a technology obsession from their parents, but they are being made to feel second best to their mums’ and dads’ omnipresent smartphones, iPads and laptops.

    Today, Dr Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, put the depressingly modern message to the Mental Health In Schools conference that screen time ‘invades and even amputates’ family time.

    Furthermore, Dr Sigman claimed that parents’ obsession is starting to affect our offspring’s happiness, mental health and school work.

    The direct message that our screens are desecrating family life might sound a touch strong, but to my shame I know it to be true.

    In my case, as a self-employed journalist, screen time has become a necessity. I get most of my ideas and assignments through Twitter, which I call my ‘digital agent’ — but it never sleeps. In the fast-moving world of reactive journalism, if you snooze you lose. So while a screen addiction might mean more bacon on the table, I’m not enjoying that bacon (or anything else) at family meal times.

    Last week my wife, Diana, told me that my boy, Sonny, six, had said to a school friend: ‘My daddy works 365 days a year.’ Kids notice: they just know. And it cut me to the heart.

    While hard work satiates my masculine need to be a provider, Sonny’s comment made me ponder: am I failing to provide for my son and 18-month-old daughter in other, equally important ways?

    I know the answer is yes. My annual holiday to Cornwall last month was wrecked by unavoidable work commitments that spilled over into what should have been sacred family time.

    Sat anchored to a Wi-Fi hotspot while watching my son make sand castles on a Penzance beach through a pub window is a sorrowful memory I will never shake.

    Even now, I well up at the thought of the photos my wife was texting to me, of Sonny jumping over a buoy as I crunched emails. I should have been taking those photos, or been in them. I’ll never get that time back.

    Yet this fear of missing out — on work, in my case — imprisons and enslaves us. Our screens invade our lives, and, if we let them, steal our souls.

    By watching us being chained to our screens, we are passing on the message to our children that we do everything via them and can’t live without them.

    We are making screens a short-cut to instant gratification we know boys especially can take forward into darker areas later in life.

    To combat this, Dr Sigman makes small yet significant recommendations we can all put into action, like screen-free family meals, and not letting family conversations be interrupted by technology.

    A pal of mine, TV doctor and writer Dr Ellie Cannon, responded to a tweet (of course) of mine on Dr Sigman’s report, and gave me some more advice.

    ‘The phone does not go on until after I’ve dropped the kids at school or I am in the car to go to work,’ she says. ‘When I pick the kids up from school, my phone stays at home and stays in a drawer on silent for the next few hours of playing, homework, bedtimes. I might check it once or twice to see if I need to action anything urgently. After three months I have learnt most things can wait an hour or two. Some, I’ve found, can wait forever.’

    Like Dr Ellie, I want to change because I want to be a better parent, not a half-distracted one, waiting for the next tweet or email.

    Tonight I’ll be enjoying a screen-free meal. Later, I’ll read Sonny a book rather than watching cartoons on the iPad. I’ll substitute Lego for Twitter, slides for Sky News.

    After all, we would lay down our lives for our kids. So why can’t we put our phones down?