Are your children spending too long on phones and tablets?
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Dad Lee Harris is concerned – and is doing something about it. (But was Kirstie Allsopp right to smash up her children's iPads?)
Lee Harris remembers his light-bulb moment. It was at Disneyland Paris, where his family was enjoying a Christmas treat. 'I was amazed at the number of children who couldn't wait in a queue without having to have their phone or a tablet, playing a game,' he says.
'Some of the kids were virtually stamping their feet because they couldn't just stand there; they had to have their phone, playing on Roblox or some other game.'
(Apparently, it's 'the largest user-generated online gaming platform… the #1 gaming site for kids and teens'.)
Lee noticed that some youngsters couldn't even do without their electronic devices at breakfast. 'I thought 'This is crazy'.
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'I came back and was talking to some parents at the school where my daughters go, and they were saying about the constant battle to get kids off the tablets, and the meltdowns they were having with their kids. I thought 'There's definitely something here that needs addressing…''
Lee's always been a keen reader and had done a bit of writing in the past, though never sent off anything in a bid to get it published. But here, he was sure, was a spark worth fanning.
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'I think it was just before last Christmas that I said to my wife 'I've got an idea for a book. I'm going to give it a go.' It took me about four or five weeks to write the story and edit it.'
And so he brought out his first children's picture-book. Boris and Betty is about twin bears spending too much time on computer games. Their exasperated mother comes up with a plan to get them playing outside a bit more – and they love it.
Not that Lee is taking a 'holier than thou' stance. As a dad, he knows our busy 21st Century life makes life tricky for parents.
Teddy (his five-year-old) shows an interest in computer-based fun but is also 'quite happy if I say 'put it down; we need to go and do something else',' but he recognises that being almost-constantly interconnected is important for 'tweenagers' and older youths of the Instagram generation.
'She (Faith, his 11-year-old) thinks she's missing out if I say 'Come on, we're going to take the dogs out for an hour.' It does get more difficult when they get older, but it is about parenting, isn't it? You have to do what's right.
'It's not about saying they can't go on it – they need to know the skills as they get older, because it's going to be an important part of their future – it's just about getting that balance.'
It's easy to let children spend ages on a screen, though. 'Life's hard enough as it is. We've got an 18-month-old who takes up a lot of our time, as they do. Sometimes it's easy for us to say 'You two can do whatever you want to do on your gadgets while we're playing with Lucy.''
Nowadays, it's common for both parents to have to work, simply to pay the bills, so he acknowledges mums and dads are often exhausted and short of time.
'You've worked a 40-hour week, you're tired, you've got to keep up with housework… it's almost like you let them parent themselves at certain points.
'So the book is a gentle nudge. I don't want to be preaching to people, because it's going to turn people off. Although it's aimed at children, if parents read it at bedtime it's a gentle reminder to them as well: 'maybe in the morning we can go to the park or wherever.' Even if it just reaches a few people it's done its job.'
Lee is 40, so as a lad didn't face the same technological temptations as modern children. 'To be honest, I was massively into football. Every waking moment was spent down Emerald Park in Gorleston, playing football to the point where my parents had to come and get me and drag me indoors.'
In adulthood, though, he's felt the pull of digital addiction…
'I was as bad as anyone, being on an iPad. When I first got mine, I was constantly on there: just checking social media or the news. Or even downloading apps for games.
'You get to the point where two or three hours have gone and you've not really done anything – you're still sitting in the same place! It's scary how easy it is to fall into that trap.'
Lee's home-based job, for a branch of the marine industry, in any case sees him spending hours in front of a computer, so more time staring at a screen is best avoided. 'You just have to re-educate yourself not to do it, really.'
Besides, cockapoo Jarvis is always up for a walk and willing to be an amiable companion outdoors. 'You can't tire him out. Impossible!' Lee laughs.
Pity you can't drop a tablet into his paws and say: Go and amuse yourself for a while…
'That's the one animal you'd happily give an iPad to!'
Boris and Betty is published through Jelly Bean Books at £7.99
Was Kirstie's iPad-smashing right?
The issue of children and screen time has long been a hot one.
In September, TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp revealed that in the summer she'd smashed her sons' iPads after they played games beyond their permitted time.
She told Channel 5's Jeremy Vine: 'In June I smashed my kids' iPads; not in a violent way. I actually banged them on the table leg.'
The resulting furore on social media led to her taking a break from Twitter (until Tuesday of this week).
What does Lee Harris think? 'I agree with the principle of getting your children off it; I'm not quite sure the smashing of the iPad is the way to go,' laughs the first-time author from Oulton, Lowestoft.
Does it matter?
The BBC in September reported on a study linking children's recreational screen use with improved learning and performance.
Children aged eight to 11 who used screens for fun for less than two hours a day did better in tests of mental ability, suggested an American study in journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.
However, researchers said more work was needed to understand the effects of different types of screen use. And they said their observational study did not prove a causal link.