My eldest daughter, at aged two-and-a-bit, has yet to get the measure of the mobile phone. She thinks it’s great for viewing photos (of herself) and playing with ring-tones, but that’s it. No doubt by the time she hits three she’ll be texting her social network of peers from nurseries throughout the world, and throwing a strop because I won’t take her to meet jonny72 by the pre-school toys in Mothercare. Does this bother me? Not really. It’s good for children to be sociable – and if the mobile phone facilitates that, then it’s no bad thing.
There is an assumption that, as a parent, you are supposed to greet every external influence on your child’s life with foreboding. Whether it’s strangers at the swimming pool or other children at the nursery, we are encouraged to worry about our child being abducted, bullied or otherwise led astray. These fears become magnified when dealing with new technologies to which we never had access when we were children, and which we often understand and use rather less than our own kids.
Study after study shows the extent to which children, starting from a very young age, understand and engage with technologies like mobile phones, the internet, computers and video games, displaying a knowledge and dexterity that we parents find breathtaking – and, in consequence, quite threatening. But what is there, really, to be scared of? Just as the stranger at the swimming pool is highly unlikely to abduct our children, mobile phones are not about to lure them into the great unknown from which we will never be able to pull them back. Like footballs and dollies, mobile phones are, by and large, both toys to play with and the means to interact with other children. It might bother you that you don’t know exactly who your child is talking to – but did parents ever exert such control over their child’s friendships?
Much of children’s literature is based on the theme of children trying to carve out an independent space for themselves, subverting their parents’ rules in order to have their own adventures, and make their own decisions. And today’s children have far less freedom than previous generations. They are not allowed to play out on their own, even walk to school on their own; every moment of their time is supposed to be structured, supervised, worthy. If they can use their phone or computer to gain, in the virtual world, some of the freedom and play-space that is denied to them in the ‘real’ world, why should we seek to stifle it?
The fact that mobiles and the internet allow children access to ‘social networks’ beyond the geographical boundaries of their daily lives is often seen as deeply scary, but it shouldn’t take too much imagination to see that there is a positive side as well. I grew up in a small village, where the only alternative to your school-friends was pen friends – stilted letters written in languages you didn’t understand to children you may never meet. I now live in a small town, and would hope that my children have the opportunity to meet as many different people as possible, not just those who live next door.
Of course, there are potential risks in all this social networking by technology-savvy young people, and of course there are challenges to parents. But the bottom line is that, when it comes to the mobile’s role in all this, it’s only talk – and we all know the ‘sticks and stones’ adage. So then, your child might make a friend online whom she is determined to go off and meet – don’t let her! Go with her! So, your child is spending far too much time and money on mindless messaging and trivial chit-chat – have the row with her! Take the phone away! Parenting is full of challenges such as these, and it’s hard to see how blaming technology for our own disciplining failures is going to help. I don’t demand that the authorities ‘do something’ to stop my toddler throwing her food on the floor or having tantrums in toy-shops, and I hope that when she becomes a recalcitrant teenager I won’t be looking to the authorities to sort out what are, after all, the same kind of domestic barneys.
Children should be allowed their freedom. This does not mean that parents should let them do whatever they want. It is our job to draw the boundaries, just as surely as it is our children’s mission to find ways of breaking the rules. Allowing children their freedom means keeping the regulators out of what is, after all, Their Space – and letting parents and kids work the tensions out for themselves.
Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and now works as a freelance writer and editor in Kent.