It’s 12.30am, and time for my pre-bed ritual: tiptoe upstairs so as not to wake the children, brush my teeth, turn out the lights … and then catch sight of that telltale, flickering blue glow coming from under the 15-year-old’s bedroom door. I mentally prepare myself for the nightly battle, and knock
“Come on, Fred, turn your phone off – it’s nearly 1am and you’ve got school tomorrow.”
“Don’t lie, Dad. It’s not ‘nearly’ 1am. It’s only 12.30.”
“Just turn it off and get to sleep. Please. It’s only crappy videos on the internet – they’ll still be there in the morning. “But I’ve done nothing wrong!” (I paraphrase: this is a teenage boy we’re talking about here, so his “conversation” is littered with swearing and streetspeak, which are best left to the imagination.)
It wasn’t always like this: until a couple of years ago, rather than gawping at YouTubers drinking live goldfish and who knows what else they get up to, my darling boy wasted his waking hours playing games, specifically Mine-bloody-craft. How I hated it, with its stupid, make-believe world of pixellated, Lego-faced critters and monsters. Some commentators went so far as to argue that a Minecraft habit was somehow educational and healthy, the fools.
But it’s only a short step from there to the even more mindless Clash of Clans. Believe me, I know. And before you go there, yes, I have installed every parental control under the sun on the family desktop and router, but Fred’s 15 and I’m 52, so he runs rings round me technology-wise.
And it’s not just us parents who are made miserable by our offspring’s online addictions. Earlier this week the NSPCC chief executive, Peter Wanless, warned of a nation of deeply unhappy children, due to “the pressure to keep up with friends and have the perfect life online … adding to the sadness that many young people feel on a daily basis”.
Before you accuse me of being an appalling father (I do quite enough of that myself, thanks very much), new research by the charity Action For Children finds that a staggering one in four parents struggles to control their children’s screen use. We’re all in this together, it seems, which should be of some comfort. But the charity undermines its survey, in our house at least, by adding that a mere 10% of parents find it hard to get their kids to do homework (they’re having a laugh, right?), while 18% can’t get them to go to sleep at night (see above)
ACF spoils things further with suggestions for limiting children’s screen time, among them “plan fun activities for the whole family that don’t involve technology” (family activities, at 12.30am? Are they mad?); “create a balance between technology use and other activities” by insisting that, for every hour of screen, children should have to do an hour of something else (you try telling that to a near-10-stone lump of testosterone); “organise a board game night” (yes, definitely certifiable); and “practise what you preach … turn off your devices, too” (hang on: post-10.30pm is the only time I get to let off teen-based steam on Twitter).
Sorry, none of that’s ever going to work on Fred, or any other teen I know, for that matter; it’s way too late for that now. Nope, it’s time for some Victorian-style parenting, not least because we also have an 11-year-old, and I can’t be going through all this again. So last night we sat Fred down and laid down the law: from this Sunday, he’s to hand in his phone to us by 10.30pm on school nights – no discussion, no argument, just good old-fashioned “because I said so”. His response? “No way. That is so unfair. I’ve done nothing wrong! If you do this, I’ll just nick your Sim.” (Again, I’ll leave it to you to pepper that lot with profanities.)
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