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My Lords, I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s special representative on internet safety. I welcome the manifesto and support it wholeheartedly.
Technology is transforming childhood and family life beyond recognition, and for this manifesto to achieve the desired results of stronger, more resilient families, we must examine the impact on family relationships of the increasing use of digital devices. The manifesto speaks to the importance of parents’ active participation in their children’s lives. However, it is not about just being physically present; it is equally important that parents give their children consistent and wholehearted attention, without the interruption of apps, messaging and interaction on social media platforms. These digital interruptions send the message to children that text, email, Facebook or Twitter posts are more important than they are. That message has far-reaching implications for their mental health and well-being.
An observational study by the University of Michigan showed that occurrences of negative behaviour in children, such as tantrums, whining, hyperactivity and restlessness, were far more common among children whose parents admitted to using smartphones while interacting with them. Earlier this year, a survey of 2,000 secondary school students by Digital Awareness UK reported that 44% of children felt upset or ignored as a result of overuse of mobile phones by their parents. One headmistress at St Joseph’s Primary School in Middlesbrough posted signs asking phone-obsessed parents to greet their children with a smile at the end of the day rather than staring at their screens.
Active participation of parents not only means giving their wholehearted focus to their children but not reaching for tablets and iPhones to keep their children occupied. Although studies suggest the cognitive benefits to children of learning to use technology at an early age, we have to be alert to their potentially failing to learn effectively other very important human skills, such as listening, making eye contact, expressing empathy and showing respect for others.
Excessive social media use has been proven to correlate positively to mental health issues. The Royal Society for Public Health and the young health movement recently found that four out of five of the most popular forms of social media actually harm young people’s mental health by,
“deepening young people’s feelings of inadequacy and anxiety”,
with the photo platform Instagram ranking the worst. Feeding off the already insecure minds of growing teenagers, these applications place young people into an alternative universe where they are bombarded with and consumed by messages that undermine their self-worth.
It is no coincidence that an increasing number of academic studies are finding that this soaring increase in mental health problems over the past five years coincides with the period in which young people’s use of social media has exploded. New NHS data obtained in the past decade shows that the number of times girls aged 17 or under have been admitted to hospital in England because of self-harm has risen by 68%. Cases of self-poisoning have risen by 50% and cases of young girls cutting themselves have quadrupled. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has identified this as a “growing crisis”.
If we fail to acknowledge the pivotal role of technology and the resulting dramatic shifts in how we communicate within the family environment, it will be not only an oversight but negligent, because the shift is not neutral: it is often negative. If we are to ensure that children and families have strong bonds at home, we must view increasing technological dependency and its substitution for real human contact as one of the most urgent issues facing families. Whatever else we do, this will ensure that the policies we develop will be fit for today and tomorrow.