Smartphones and selfie culture: what are you teaching your child?

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Do your children have to vie with your smartphone for your attention in the evenings? Do you feel twitchy in the mornings if you haven’t checked your messages? Having pooh-poohed them a couple of years ago, have you embraced the selfie (ironically, of course)? Then perhaps it’s not your children’s use of technology that you should be worrying about, but your own.

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Along with David Cameron — who last week took his first selfie-stick photo — we have bought in to selfie culture. At first we thought selfies vulgar, un-British, then we relented, accepted them as harmless fun. And, despite the National Gallery, and lately, the Wimbledon Championships, banning selfie sticks because of “nuisance value”, we’re still fans. We have accepted our phones are our constant companions and we are now in the habit of reporting on our holidays, nights out and family moments. We’ve mastered the art of self-promotion with as much polish, and a lot more passive-aggression and humblebrag, as any teen.

Our smartphones are part of who we are and most of us would rather lose a toe than relinquish them. We justifiably fret about our teens: thanks to social media, school bullies no longer quit at 3.30: they follow their victims home into their bedrooms. We worry that our selfie culture places an unhealthy emphasis on image, in every sense, and it’s putting pressure on our kids. Technology is wonderful but our children need to know how to negotiate it, and when to take a break — and frankly, we parents, welded to our devices, aren’t helping.

“When is the last time you actually switched your phone off?” cries psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, in the middle of a friendly discussion about selfies and social networking: “Off! Not put it on ‘silent’, not turned the volume down, not stopped it vibrating — literally switched it off?” After an embarrassed pause, I’m about to confess (two minutes, in December, for a re-boot), when she answers her own question: “I genuinely can’t remember.”

Of course, the more we “PR ourselves”, there’s a danger, says Dr Papadopoulos, author of Whose Life Is It Anyway?Living through your 20s on your own terms, of “getting lost in the narcissistic nature of the online world — this is my page, my friends, my followers, this is ME”. A friend on a train watched a mother absorbed in her phone, while her three children screamed and fought. At one point she briefly, expertly assembled them for a selfie — all fell into obedient pose, eager for her attention. Three clicks and she returned to her phone.

We’ve all been guilty of digital child neglect. But as Caron Barruw, a psychotherapist specialising in relationships, says: “You can evaluate how important you are to somebody by whether or not they turn off their phone for you. Children are no different. If parents are always on the phone, the child feels unheard and unimportant.”

Why do we feel the need to capture ourselves? Vanity, yes, but Dr Richard Graham, consultant adolescent psychiatrist, who launched the UK’s first technology addiction clinic at the Capio Nightingale hospital in London, has described the selfie as a “plea not to be forgotten”. He suspects the feeling, especially for young people, is one of “panic: you’re one of four billion people on Facebook,” he says, “the subjective feeling is one of feeling smaller, anonymised, like a grain of sand on a beach”.

A lot of those trying to resist middle age possibly feel the same (to judge from the volume of uploads). But as viewers we rarely interpret the selfie as revealing insecurity: we’re more likely to look at it and feel excluded. One mother of teens, pained at her daughter scrolling through endless self-portraits of peers at parties she wasn’t invited to, calls it a “form of bullying”. As advertisers discovered decades ago, certain images can have a profound effect on our psyche.

Dr Graham says: “If you’re reading a text, no matter how offensive, you can stop and consider its meaning, in context. Images get into the mind almost unfiltered and can therein pack quite a punch. They stay with you.”

Dr Graham says we’re all vulnerable to the “narcissistic wound — where you write or post something you really like and no one responds”. But he feels many young people learn “to give themselves a break”. (That or “learn to take the hate” — hardly ideal, although some exhibit what seems like a startling degree of resilience.) His concern, as regards psychological health, is “the sheer amount of mental activity it takes to produce a social media profile: maintenance, manicuring, careful curation — and to keep tabs on others”.

We bang on about mindfulness, we want our kids to find contentment, but if we stand in a queue for two minutes, we whip out our phone. Yet, instead of analysing our own habits, we focus our anxiety on our children (often out of ignorance). Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist focusing in the field of behavioural addictions at Nottingham Trent University, receives many “emails from mothers about sons supposedly being addicted to games, and daughters being addicted to Facebook”. His belief is that if kids spend too much time online, the adults are usually at fault: “Parents can use it as a way of not spending time with their children.”

Of course we need to keep pace with the less desirable aspects of the digital world. Our kids still need guidance. But they are also skilled in making technology work for them: completing a paired homework via FaceTime, coding, blogging, writing stories together, catching up with friends.

It’s we adults who seem to struggle: less digital natives than hillbillies on our first trip abroad. As much as technology has freed us we find ourselves chained to it. “The irony is, we’re not talking about somebody locked up in front of a computer in a darkened room,” says Dr Papadopoulos, we’re talking about you and me. Her excuse for never turning off the phone is, she’s a mother. Mine too.

“But the reality”, says Dr Papadopoulos, “is there’s an obsessive tic. It’s ridiculous how often we check our phones.” Sam Baker, CEO and editor of digital magazine The Pool, recently discovered that 40 per cent of women would be more stressed if they lost their phone than if they lost their wallet. Absolutely!

We all need validation, acceptance, and technology is convenient, efficient; it allows us to socialise while still in reach of the biscuit cupboard. The paradox is, we spend more time alone, excessively connected; be it via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, text — Dr Graham calls it, “part of the evolution of how socially and psychologically we relate to each other”.

It’s almost as if we crave intimacy but simultaneously avoid it. Because, for all the amusement and advantages it brings, social media can’t equal the warmth and satisfaction of face-to-face human contact.

Dr Larry Rosen, professor of the psychology department at California State University and author of iDisorder, researched “virtual empathy”, comparing how empathic people are in real life with the virtual world. He found that: “Real world empathy is six times better at making you feel supported. It’s not that virtual empathy doesn’t, but you need six empathic Facebook comments to equal one hug in the real world.”

Most teens have fewer digital platforms than adults — and they also seem to mostly accept rules such as no devices at the dinner table, if parents have the will to enforce them. Meanwhile, adults slyly disgrace themselves. A 45-year-old guest at a friend’s dinner party repeatedly checked his phone on his lap for the football results. His children kept whispering, “Dad, what’s the score?” A friend admits that she forbids her teens to charge any device in their bedrooms but uses her iPhone as an alarm, which permits her, three seconds after waking, to check her emails. Ahem.

This is how we live now. In many ways, it’s a privilege. But Barruw suggests moderating our interaction: “Go on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, but not all of them at the same time. And limit the time you spend online.” Dr Rosen simply advises “slowly weaning yourself off the need to check in so constantly”.

It’s possible to adapt our social media habits, to feel less anxious, stressed, judged, self-conscious and, undoubtedly, set a healthier example for our children: help them understand that while technology undoubtedly rules, it shouldn’t rule us. Ultimately, we need to take responsibility for ourselves: we can’t live our life in thrall to what everyone else thinks.

The ten house rules for your family

No phones at the dinner table
If you value your partner and kids, you’ll exert a modicum of self-control and won’t bring your phone to the dinner table. Meal times, says consultant psychiatrist Dr Richard Graham, are not only enjoyable, “they can provide us with rather lovely, ordinary learning about respect, values, and managing impulses. They provide the opportunity to talk and share and be interested; they can bring a family together.”

Not if you are on your phone, though. He adds: “Once you start to err away from family mealtimes, it’s hard to get them back, and soon enough everyone’s eating at different times in different rooms.” Don’t expect kids to engage emotionally if you don’t. “Children are acutely aware if parents are checking their phones. When it’s equal it makes it easier.”

Don’t start your digital day until they’ve left for school
A schoolday morning is short and frantic and your children benefit emotionally from your attention. Ideally, you will spare them 45 minutes, and refrain from starting your digital day until you’ve kissed them goodbye. By so doing, you demonstrate that whoever, and whatever, is on your phone isn’t more important to you than chatting to them over breakfast. “You can listen to the radio, and be preoccupied, but your children can still attract your gaze,” says Dr Graham; there’s still togetherness. “But for you to be checking your mails, to be absorbed, is quite difficult for children.”

Be realistic, not obsessive
Of course, not all of us have jobs that begin at 9.30am — many of us need to check our emails first thing, so as to avoid a P45. If this is the case, be disciplined and brief. Take care of business, then back away from the screen. Equally, for teens whose phone-checking habits are ingrained, a full morning ban is not helpful: a slow detox is better. Dr Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology, says: “Rather than make a no-phone policy, just limit the time to, say, five minutes upon waking, and then maybe another minute or two while getting ready for school. This will alleviate that need to check in.” Meaning, you’ll actually be less stressed and distracted.

Talk to them about what they are posting
Parents often wash their hands of what teens do online — perhaps because we feel it’s not our world. Safety, of course, is an issue, but there are other concerns: if you insist on good manners, face-to-face, ensure your children apply good manners digitally. Your values remain valid. If it’s not OK to boast to a friend, then it’s not permissible to brag on Facebook. Likewise, would they show ten photos of a biscuit to a guest visiting the house? If not, the act of posting ten pictures of a biscuit needs to be reconsidered.

At least a few of the questions that children should ask themselves before posting, for safety reasons, can also be applied to general etiquette. James Diamond, an e-safety specialist, says: “They should ask themselves: ‘Do I really want to do this?’ Don’t do something you don’t want to do because of social pressure or a lack of obvious consequences. Also, ‘Would I want my grandma to see this?’ (Because she well might.) And also, ‘Is this how I want the world to see me?’” Diamond says: “Would you want this photo defining you to universities, future employers and the whole world?”

No phones in the bedroom
This rule is essential, especially at night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends no screen time in the last hour before sleep, as blue light emissions release cortisol, which is a stimulating neurotransmitter and which will counteract the melatonin that puts us to sleep. Also, once teenagers have a phone beside their beds, temptation is hard to resist — increasing the risk of interrupted sleep.

Is it wrong to enforce this rule for teens, but break it yourself? What if your phone serves as your alarm? Dr Graham says: “It’s best to model the ‘do as I do, not as I say’ kind of parenting. It always breeds a certain bitterness otherwise.” He adds: “I presume you could buy an alarm clock?”

Put down your own phone
Of all the rules, this is the most important. When you interact with your child, have the decency and sense to give them your full attention.

“It’s called parenting,” says Dr Rosen. “You cannot parent a child if you are not using all your mental resources. You are also showing them you can split your attention. Which you can’t.”

Dr Graham reports that it’s increasingly common for a child to rush out of school, longing to see their parent, to be met by their mother or father “looking down at a screen and being hard to distract”. This would be hurtful in any situation but, he adds, “if the device intrudes into the momentary sadness or anxiety of separation, or worse, the joy of reunion, there’s an impact on that child’s self-esteem and confidence. There’s the recognition that the screen-based device is king, and the feeling that they’re second fiddle.”

Set time limits
The child begs to go on the tablet, we mutter “yes” for a quiet life, but realise two hours later that they’re still on it and scream at them to get off. Be clear from the start. Agree (don’t decree) how long they’ve got: even set a timer to counteract the claim that they were allowed only ten minutes on the device. Professor Mark Griffiths says: “I tell my 13-year old: ‘You’ve got 20 minutes before you have to do your homework.’

I give him a ten-minute warning, a five-minute warning, and a one-minute warning. “This way, it isn’t a surprise, and there are no tantrums.”

No devices after 8pm
Create a peaceful screen-free few hours in the evening: not just for sanity’s sake, but to show those who matter most that we believe they deserve our time and full attention. Putting away your own phone is not only about solidarity; it’s about respect.

Send those emails when your children are asleep. Don’t clutch your phone as you read a bedtime story.

Dr Graham says: “At those moments where there is expectation of more intimate, sensitive attention or engagement, little things like the phone buzzing do matter. They may be sensitised to its value to you and it may bring up difficult issues, like the other people in your life, other demands, other things that you might prefer to be doing instead of the ordinary chores of being a parent.”

Be in your children’s social networks
Many of us make the error of giving our children a wide digital berth. We believe, often mistakenly, that they want nothing to do with us online.

However, just as we wouldn’t routinely leave the house when they invite friends over, nor should we be blankly absent from their cyberspace.

No teen wants their mum being the first to “like” and comment on every post, just as they wouldn’t want us sitting in their bedroom all afternoon, refereeing their chat with friends. They do, however, find it reassuring to have us pottering around the kitchen, and the same applies on the net.

Don’t take so many photos
We’ve acquired the reflex habit of compulsively recording many unremarkable moments on our phones and teaching kids a self-consciousness that does them no favours.

“When we spend time documenting our lives by viewing them through a small aperture, we miss out on the actual experience,” says Dr Rosen. “I cringe when I see people taking zillions of photos of their children playing, rather than sitting back and feeling pride. ”

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