Category: Parenting

What UK children are watching (and why)

There were only 40 children as part of this Ofcom research, and (as far as I can tell) none were in the North East of England where I live. Nevertheless, as parent to a 12 year-old boy and eight year-old girl, I found the report interesting.

Key findings:

  • While some children took part in organised after school clubs at least about one a week, not many of them did other or more spontaneous activities (e.g. physically meeting friends or cultivating hobbies) on a regular basis
  • Many children used social media and other messaging platforms (e.g. chat functions in games) to continually keep in touch with their friends while at home
  • Often children described going out to meet friends face-to-face as ‘too much effort’ and preferred to spend their free time on their own at home
  • While some children managed to fit screen time around other offline interests and passions, for many, watching videos was one of the main activities taking up their spare time
  • YouTube was the most popular platform for children to consume video content, followed by Netflix. Although still present in many children’s lives, Public Service Broadcasters Video On Demand] platforms and live TV were used more rarely and seen as less relevant to children like them
  • Many parents had attempted to enforce rules about online video watching, especially with younger children. They worried that they could not effectively monitor it, as opposed to live or on-demand TV, which was usually watched on the main TV. Some were frustrated by the amount of time children were spending on personal screens.

I’ve recently volunteered as an Assistant Scout Leader, and last night went with Scouts and Cubs to the ice-rink in Newcastle on the train. As I’d expect, most of the 12 year-old boys had their smartphones out and most of the girls were talking to one another. The boys were playing some games, but were mostly watching YouTube videos of other people playing games.

Ofcom report table

All kids with access to screen watch YouTube. Why?

  • The appeal of YouTube also appeared rooted in the characteristics of specific genres of content.
    • Some children who watched YouTubers and vloggers seemed to feel a sense of connection with them, especially when they believed that they had something in common
    • Many children liked “satisfying” videos which simulated sensory experiences
    • Many consumed videos that allowed them to expand on their interests; sometimes in conjunction to doing activities themselves, but sometimes only pursuing them by watching YouTube videos
    • These historically ‘offline’ experiences were part of YouTube’s attraction, potentially in contrast to the needs fulfilled by traditional TV.

Until I saw my son really level up his gameplay by watching YouTubers play the same games as him, I didn’t really get it. There’s lots of moral panic about YouTube’s algorithms, but there’s also a lot to celebrate with the fact that children have a bit more autonomy and control these days.

The appeal of YouTube for many of the children in the sample seemed to be that they were able to feed and advance their interests and hobbies through it. Due to the variety of content available on the platform, children were able to find videos that corresponded with interests they had spoken about enjoying offline; these included crafts, sports, drawing, music, make-up and science. Notably, in some cases, children were watching people on YouTube pursuing hobbies that they did not do themselves or had recently given up offline.

Really interesting stuff, and well worth digging into!

Source: Ofcom (via Benedict Evans)

Let’s (not) let children get bored again

Is boredom a good thing? Is there a direct link between having nothing to do and being creative? I’m not sure. Pamela Paul, writing in The New York Times, certainly thinks so:

[B]oredom is something to experience rather than hastily swipe away. And not as some kind of cruel Victorian conditioning, recommended because it’s awful and toughens you up. Despite the lesson most adults learned growing up — boredom is for boring people — boredom is useful. It’s good for you.

Paul doesn’t give any evidence beyond anecdote for boredom being ‘good for you’. She gives a post hoc argument stating that because someone’s creative life came after (what they remembered as) a childhood punctuated by boredom, the boredom must have caused the creativity.

I don’t think that’s true at all. You need space to be creative, but that space isn’t physical, it’s mental. You can carve it out in any situation, whether that’s while watching a TV programme or staring out of a window.

For me, the elephant in the room here is the art of parenting. Not a week goes by without the media beating up parents for not doing a good enough job. This is particularly true of the bizarre concept of ‘screentime’ (something that Ian O’Byrne and Kristen Turner are investigating as part of a new project).

In the article, Paul admits that previous generations ‘underparented’. However, in her article she creates a false dichotomy between that and ‘relentless’ modern helicopter parents. Where’s the happy medium that most of us inhabit?

Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting, grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. In an interview with GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda credited his unattended afternoons with fostering inspiration. “Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom,” he said.

Nowadays, subjecting a child to such inactivity is viewed as a dereliction of parental duty. In a much-read story in The Times, “The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting,” Claire Cain Miller cited a recent study that found that regardless of class, income or race, parents believed that “children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.”

So parents who provide for their children by enrolling them in classes and activities to explore and develop their talents are somehow doing them a disservice? I don’t get it. Fair enough if they’re forcing them into those activities, but I don’t know too many parents who are doing that.

Ultimately, Paul and I have very different expectations and experiences of adult life. I don’t expect to be bored whether at work our out of it. There’s so much to do in the world, online and offline, that I don’t particularly get the fetishisation of boredom. To me, as soon as someone uses the word ‘realistic’, they’ve lost the argument:

But surely teaching children to endure boredom rather than ratcheting up the entertainment will prepare them for a more realistic future, one that doesn’t raise false expectations of what work or life itself actually entails. One day, even in a job they otherwise love, our kids may have to spend an entire day answering Friday’s leftover email. They may have to check spreadsheets. Or assist robots at a vast internet-ready warehouse.

This sounds boring, you might conclude. It sounds like work, and it sounds like life. Perhaps we should get used to it again, and use it to our benefit. Perhaps in an incessant, up-the-ante world, we could do with a little less excitement.

No, perhaps we should make more engaging, and provide more than bullshit jobs. Perhaps we should seek out interesting things ourselves, so that our children do likewise?

Source: The New York Times

Myths about children and digital technologies

Prof. Sonia Livingstone has written a link-filled post relating to a panel she’s on at the Digital Families 2018 conference. In it, she talks about six myths around children in the digital age:

  1. Children are ‘digital natives’ and know it all.
  2. Parents are ‘digital immigrants’ and don’t know anything.
  3. Time with media is time wasted compared with ‘real’ conversation or playing outside.
  4. Parents’ role is to monitor, restrict and ban because digital risks greatly outweigh digital opportunities.
  5. Children don’t care about their privacy online.
  6. Media literacy is THE answer to the problems of the digital age.

Good stuff, and the post and associated links are well worth checking out.

Source: Parenting for a Digital Future

What do happy teenagers do?

This chart, via Psychology Today, is pretty unequivocal. It shows the activities correlated with happiness (green) and unhappiness (red) in American teenagers:

I discussed this with our eleven year-old son, who pretty much just nodded his head. I’m not sure he knew what to say, given that most of the things he enjoys doing in his free time are red on that chart!

Take a look at the bottom of the chart: Listening to music shows the strongest correlation with unhappiness. That may seem strange at first, but consider how most teens listen to music these days: On their phones, with earbuds firmly in place. Although listening to music is not screen time per se, it is a phone activity for the vast majority of teens. Teens who spend hours listening to music are often shutting out the world, effectively isolating themselves in a cocoon of sound.

This stuff isn’t rocket science, I guess:

There’s another way to look at this chart – with the exception of sleep, activities that usually involve being with other people are the most strongly correlated with happiness, and those that involve being alone are the most strongly correlated with unhappiness. That might be why listening to music, which most teens do alone, is linked to unhappiness, while going to music concerts, which is done with other people, is linked to happiness. It’s not the music that’s linked to unhappiness; it’s the way it’s enjoyed. There are a few gray areas here. Talking on a cell phone and using video chat are linked to less happiness – perhaps because talking on the phone, although social connection, is not as satisfying as actually being with others, or because they are a phone activities even though they are not, strictly speaking, screen time. Working, usually done with others, is a wash, perhaps because most of the jobs teens have are not particularly fulfilling.

I might pin this up in the house somewhere for future reference…

Source: Psychology Today

The dangers of distracted parenting

I usually limit myself to three quotations in posts I write here. I’m going to break that self-imposed rule for this article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic on parents’ screentime.

Christakis points out the good and the bad news:

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.

As parents, and in society in general, we’re super-hot on limiting kids’ screentime, but we don’t necessarily apply that to ourselves:

[S]urprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents… who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

‘Continuous partial attention’ is the term people tend to use these days instead of ‘multitasking’. To my mind it’s a better term, as it references the fact that you’re not just trying to do different things simultaneously, you’re trying to pay attention to them.

I’ve given the example before of my father sitting down to read the newspaper on a Sunday. Is there really much difference to the child, I’ve wondered, between his being hidden behind a broadsheet for an hour, and his scrolling and clicking on a mobile device? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

To me, the difference can be summed up quite easily: our mobile devices are designed to be addictive and capture our full attention, in ways that analogue media and experiences aren’t.

Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

Physically present but emotionally unavailable. Yes, we need to do better.

Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.

Amen to that.

Source: The Atlantic (via Jocelyn K. Glei)

Finding friends and family without smartphones, maps, or GPS

When I was four years old we moved to the North East of England. Soon after, my parents took my grandmother, younger sister (still in a pushchair) and me to the Quayside market in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

There’s still some disagreement as to how exactly it happened, but after buying a toy monkey that wrapped around my neck using velcro, I got lost. It’s a long time ago, but I can vaguely remember my decision that, if I couldn’t find my parents or grandmother, I’d probably better head back to the car. So I did.

45 minutes later, and after the police had been called, my parents found me and my monkey sitting on the bonnet of our family car. I can still remember the registration number of that orange Ford Escort: MAT 474 V.

Now, 33 years later, we’re still not great at ensuring children don’t get lost. Yes, we have more of a culture of ensuring children don’t go out of our sight, and give kids smartphones at increasingly-young ages, but we can do much better.

That’s why I thought this Lynq tracker, currently being crowdfunded via Indiegogo was such a great idea. You can get the gist by watching the promo video:

Our family is off for two weeks around Europe this summer. While we’ve been a couple of times before, both involved taking our car and camping. This time, we’re interrailing and Airbnbing our way around, which increases the risk that one of our children gets lost.

Lync looks really simple and effective to use, but isn’t going to be shipping until November, — otherwise I would have backed this in an instant.

Source: The Verge

The benefits of reading aloud to children

This article in the New York Times by Perri Klass, M.D. focuses on studies that show a link between parents reading to their children and a reduction in problematic behaviour.

This study involved 675 families with children from birth to 5; it was a randomized trial in which 225 families received the intervention, called the Video Interaction Project, and the other families served as controls. The V.I.P. model was originally developed in 1998, and has been studied extensively by this research group.

Participating families received books and toys when they visited the pediatric clinic. They met briefly with a parenting coach working with the program to talk about their child’s development, what the parents had noticed, and what they might expect developmentally, and then they were videotaped playing and reading with their child for about five minutes (or a little longer in the part of the study which continued into the preschool years). Immediately after, they watched the videotape with the study interventionist, who helped point out the child’s responses.

I really like the way that they focus on the positives and point out how much the child loves the interaction with their parent through the text.

The Video Interaction Project started as an infant-toddler program, working with low-income urban families in New York during clinic visits from birth to 3 years of age. Previously published data from a randomized controlled trial funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed that the 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had improved behavior — that is, they were significantly less likely to be aggressive or hyperactive than the 3-year-olds in the control group.

I don’t know enough about the causes of ADHD to be able to comment, but as a teacher and parent, I do know there’s a link between the attention you give and the attention you receive.

“The reduction in hyperactivity is a reduction in meeting clinical levels of hyperactivity,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. “We may be helping some children so they don’t need to have certain kinds of evaluations.” Children who grow up in poverty are at much higher risk of behavior problems in school, so reducing the risk of those attention and behavior problems is one important strategy for reducing educational disparities — as is improving children’s language skills, another source of school problems for poor children.

It is a bit sad when we have to encourage parents to play with children between the ages of birth and three, but I guess in the age of smartphone addiction, we kind of have to.

Source: The New York Times

Image CC BY Jason Lander

Decision fatigue and parenting

Our 11 year-old still asks plenty of questions, but also looks things up for himself online. Our seven year-old fires off barrages of questions when she wakes up, to and from school, during dinner, before bed — basically anytime she can get a word in edgeways.

I have sympathy, therefore, for Emma Marris, who decided to show those who aren’t parents of young children (or perhaps those who have forgotten) what it’s like.

I decided to write down every question that required a decision that my my two kids asked me during a single day. This doesn’t include simple requests for information like “how do you spell ‘secret club’?” or “what is the oldest animal in the world?” or the perennial favorite, “why do people have to die?” Recording ALL the questions two kids ask in a day would be completely intractable. So, limiting myself to just those queries that required a decision, here are the results.

Some of my favourites from her long list:

  • Can I play on your phone until you wake up?
  • Can we listen to bouncy music instead of this podcast about the Mueller investigation while we make breakfast?
  • Will you pre-chew my gumball since it is too large to fit in my mouth?
  • Will you tell us who you are texting?
  • Do you want to eat the meat out the tail of this shrimp?

Marris says in the comments that her kids are eight and five years old, respectively. You can kind of tell that from the questions.

I’m not saying we’re amazing parents, but one thing we try and do is to not just tell our children the answer to their questions, but tell them how we worked it out. That’s particularly important if we used some kind of device to help us find the answer. Recently, I’ve been using the Google Assistant which feels to an adult almost interface-free. However, there’s a definite knack to it that you forget once you’re used to using it.

Over and above that, a lot of questions that children ask are permission and equality-related. In other words, they’re asking if they’re allowed to do something, or if you’ll intervene because the other child is doing something they shouldn’t / gaining an advantage. Both my wife and I have been teachers, and the same is true in the classroom.

There’s a couple of things I’ve learned here:

  1. If children are asking a lot of permission-related questions, then it’s worth your while to help them understand what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Allow them to help themselves more than they do currently.
  2. If children are complaining about equality and they’re different ages, explain to both of them that you treat them equitably but not eqully. When they complain that’s not fair, send the older one to bed at the same time as the younger one (and perhaps give them the same amount of pocket money), and get the younger one to help more around the house. They don’t stop complaining, but they certainly do it less…

Why is all of this important? Making decisions makes you tired. To quote Marris’ first paragraph as the last one in this one:

Decision fatigue is real. Decision fatigue is the mental exhaustion and reduced willpower that comes from making many, many micro-calls every day. My modern American lifestyle, with its endless variety of choices, from a hundred kinds of yogurt at the grocery store to the more than 4,000 movies available on Netflix, breeds decision fatigue. But it is my kids that really fry my brain. At last I understand that my own mother’s penchant for saying “ask your father” wasn’t deference to her then husband but the most desperate sort of buck-passing–especially since my father dealt with decision fatigue by saying yes to pretty much everything, which is how my brothers and I ended up taking turns rolling down the steep hill we grew up on inside an aluminum trash can.

Source: The Last Word on Nothing

On playing video games with your kids

I play ‘video games’ (a curiously old-fashioned term) with my kids all the time. Current favourites are FIFA 18 and Star Wars Battlefront II. We also enjoy Party Golf as a whole family (hilarious!)

My children play different games with each other than they play with me. They’re more likely to play Lego Worlds or Minecraft (the latter always on their tablets). And when I’m away we play word games such as Words With Friends 2 or Wordbase.

The author of this article, David Cole, points out that playing games with his son is a different experience than he was expecting it to be:

So when I imagined playing video games with my son — now 6 — I pictured myself as being the Player 2 that I’d never had in my own childhood. I wouldn’t mind which games he wanted to play, or how many turns he’d take. I would comfort him through frustrating losses and be a good sport when we competed head-to-head. What I hadn’t anticipated in these fantasies was how much a new breed of video game would end up deeply altering the way we relate. Games of challenge and reflex are still popular of course, but among children my son’s age they’ve been drastically overtaken by a class of games defined by open-ended, expressive play. The hallmark title of this sort is, undeniably, Minecraft.

My son is 11 years old and my daughter seven, so what Cole describes resonates:

My son and I do still play those competitive games, and I hope that he’s learning about practice and perseverance when we do. But those games are about stretching and challenging him to fit the mold of the game’s demands. When we play Minecraft together, the direction of his development, and thus our relationship, is reversed: He converts the world into expressions of his own fantasies and dreams. And by letting me enter and explore those dream worlds with him, I come to understand him in a way that the games from my childhood do not.

The paragraph that particularly resonated with me was this one, as it not only describes my relationship with my children when playing video games, but also parenting as being vastly different (for better and worse) than I thought it would be:

The working rhythms of our shared play allow for stretches of silent collaboration. It’s in these contemplative moments that I notice how distinct this feeling is from my own childhood, as well as the childhood I had predicted for my son. I thought I would be his Player 2, an ideal peer that would make his childhood awesome in ways that mine was not. In retrospect, that was always just a picture of me, not of him and not of us.

A lovely article that reminded me of the heartwarming Player 2 video short based on a true story from a YouTube comments section…

Source: The Cut

Why good parents have naughty children

This made me smile, then it made me think. Our children are offspring of a current teacher and a former teacher. What difference does our structure and rules make to their happiness?

This article from the ongoing Book of Life compares and contrasts two families. The first is what would generally be regarded as a ‘good’ family, where the children are well-behaved and interactions pleasant. However:

In Family One the so-called good child has inside them a whole range of emotions that they keep out of sight not because they want to but because they don’t feel they have the option to be tolerated as they really are. They feel they can’t let their parents see if they are angry or fed up or bored because it seems as if the parents have no inner resources to cope with their reality; they must repress their bodily, coarser, more volatile selves. Any criticism of a grown up is (they imagine) so wounding and devastating that it can’t be uttered.

The second family is the opposite, but:

In Family Two the so-called bad child knows that things are robust. They feel they can tell their mother she’s a useless idiot because they know in their hearts that she loves them and that they love her and that a bout of irritated rudeness won’t destroy that. They know their father won’t fall apart or take revenge for being mocked. The environment is warm and strong enough to absorb the child’s aggression, anger, dirtiness or disappointment.

As a parent, I’m torn between, on the one hand wanting my children to be a bit rebellious. But, on the other hand, it’s just really inconvenient when they are…

We should learn to see naughty children, a few chaotic scenes and occasional raised voices as belonging to health rather than delinquency – and conversely learn to fear small people who cause no trouble whatsoever. And, if we have occasional moments of happiness and well-being, we should feel especially grateful that there was almost certainly someone out there in the distant past who opted to look through the eyes of love at some deeply unreasonable and patently unpleasant behaviour from us.

Source: The Book of Life