As I write this my younger son is watching yet another Minecraft video, while his older brother updates his Snapchat story – neither of which are uncommon, given that it’s the school holidays.
Getting children’s on- and off-line balance right is an ever-present slog, as I’m sure it is for many, many parents, so the recently-released government guidelines on the time kids spend online should be welcome.
Certainly UK children’s commissioner Anne Longfield’s attacks earlier this month on internet firms’ methods for hooking children into ever-greater use of their sites and apps were timely.
But the new Digital 5 A Day may not be of huge practical use, beyond serving as a general, gentle reminder kids should spend more time offline and mix up their online time so that it’s used for a variety of types of activities.
The advice is based on the NHS’s ‘Five steps to better mental wellbeing’ programme, but as a public health message it more clearly echoes the successful 5-a-day fruit and vegetable campaign.
Whether you think five servings of fruit or veg each day is too much or too little, it’s a clear, easy to remember target. In contrast, the Digital 5 A Day offers a vague suggestion to divide kids’ time between five types of activities: connect with friends online, be active away from screens, get creative online, give to others and be mindful of others (with some overlap between the last two).
The campaign’s lack of concrete goals or time limits smacks of a fear of being seen as a nanny state, but more than that it seems illustrative of the inherent difficulty of regulating children’s time online. Not to mention, the likelihood my teenage son will keep – as the guide suggests – “a diary as way of logging the amount of time [he is] spending online or downloading an app” is pretty slim.
Moreover, launching this kind of an initiative on a Sunday, two to three weeks into the school holidays is hardly optimum timing. As parents we’re already knee-deep in this modern day dilemma.
Longfield writes: “I don’t think parents should be afraid of children’s digital lives – but what they should avoid doing is allowing their children to use the internet and social media in the same way they would use sweets or junk food given half the chance.
“Taken as a whole, and supplemented with parents own ideas about what they want for their children, I hope 5 A Day will be at the very least a starting point for parents to tackle one of the modern parenting world’s newest and biggest dilemmas and help children to lead the way as active digital citizens.”
Something is better than nothing, but at best I can only see this this being a starting point.