Extreme digital detox

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This summer, there will be no hunting for pidgeys, charizards and vaporeons on Pokémon Go, or hours spent filtering selfies to post on Snapchat, for Skylar, 11, Cassie, 5, Maggie, 4, and twins Benjamin and Alexander, 14 months. Their parents, Toby and Katie Shea, have taken drastic action to give their iGeneration children a technology detox. Three months ago, the couple spent more than £40,000 building a two-storey treehouse, complete with a hobbit hole, climbing wall, slide, sandpit, monkey bars and rope bridge, in the garden of their house in Guildford, Surrey.

The two-storey treehouse has climbing wall, slide, sandpit, monkey bars and rope bridge

The two-storey treehouse has climbing wall, slide, sandpit, monkey bars and rope bridge

“I wanted them to have an excuse to go outside,” says Toby, 41, who imports American smokers and barbecues. “It’s difficult to justify the cost, but knowing the kids are going to benefit, it’s going to pay for itself tenfold.”

In the past decade, the amount of time under-15s spend online has more than doubled. The most enthusiastic surfers are 12- to 15-year-olds, who clock up 19 or more hours a week online, according to Ofcom. What’s more, almost 70% of those have their own smartphone, while 81% of under-15s have access to a tablet. This glut of devices is one of the biggest concerns for parents who believe they had a happier childhood because they spent more time outside, according to the Camping and Caravanning Club.

During a confession session with @TheSTHome on Twitter, one frustrated parent admitted to throwing her son’s iPad out of a window, while another has taken to hiding devices. One tweeter, who endured two days of “hell” after declaring her kids were having a tech-free summer last year, said it turned out wonderfully.

“It’s easier to put a child in front of something, but I think parents need to do something,” Toby says. “Our eldest in particular had started to watch too much TV and was playing computer games. In the first three days of having the treehouse, they ran all around it. I sat there and thought, ‘This is more exercise than they’ve probably had in months.’ I realised it was definitely the right decision.”

Designed and built by Hertfordshire-based High Life Treehouses, Toby’s vision of a “Harry Potter-style hideaway”, where his children would disconnect from the digital world, is much grander than the firm’s standard three- to four-metre designs, which start at £10,000.

“We were in a fortunate position where we were able to put down exactly what we wanted: the children like slides, they like climbing, so we put those in,” Toby explains.

Henry Durham, founder of High Life Treehouses, says the driving force for almost every client is to stop children turning into tech zombies. “Over the years, kids have lost that desire to go outside and play with sticks, jump in puddles and do all the healthy stuff they should be doing outside.”

The impact of social media is a big concern among parents — 72% believe it affects their children’s ability to interact and engage with others.

“We hear a lot more laughter now, there is certainly more joy and social interaction. You want to make sure the kids are close and have play time together. They’re different ages but I’m hoping it will create an additional bond. The first thing they do when they get back from school is go down the slide,” Toby says.

Enjoying life at ground level: the hobbit hole

Enjoying life at ground level: the hobbit hole

Other parents desperate to stop their kids getting square eyes are building skate parks, giant chess boards in place of traditional patios, shooting ranges in the orchard and bike tracks.

“People put in walls for kids to kick a ball against, or even to practise their parkour (free running) skills,” says Rachel Johnston, regional director of the buying agency Stacks Property Search. “You can take off pigeon defences on existing walls so they are walkable, climbable and leapable. Potentially, you could reinforce the garage so it won’t crumble beneath them.”

These modifications can also work wonders for the value of a property. “It gives the impression of a happy, active family who are all out playing together,” says Johnston, who estimates that the amount of money invested in these lifestyle features can be doubled and added to the sale price.

For the inevitable rainy days, there has to be an indoor back-up plan — with some parents willing to paper an entire room in colouring-in wallpaper. “We’ve seen a 20% increase in sales,” says Richard Wilde, managing director of Murals Wallpaper. “More parents want to reduce screen time and get them involved with more tactile ‘real world’ play, while engaging with their home environment.”

Similarly, Viki Lander, creative director of Ensoul Interior Architecture, has seen a rise in inquiries for workout areas suitable for young gym bunnies. “They’re fantastic for teenagers to get exercise and be encouraged into healthy routines,” she says. “For those who don’t have enough space for a big swimming pool, infinity pools where you swim against a current are fantastic.”

But is this detox going to have a negative impact on children growing up in a digital world? “Traditional activities such as riding a bike shouldn’t be replaced by devices, but by banning devices and technology we’re in danger of making children feel excluded from our connected world,” says Aisha Tilstone, founder of Digital Kids.

“You would disconnect your child from a world that is increasingly reliant on technology. Kids will feel isolated. Having time away from your device gives you a clear mind and the ability to focus on one task at a time without the distractions of pop-ups, messages, calls, emails.”

Tilstone suggests finding a balance by sharing everyday tasks that you do online, such as grocery shopping: it can help your child to understand how to manage numbers, the usefulness of technology and the family budget.

However, I bet the kids would much rather have a treehouse.

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