Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Everyone in our house – from 47-years-old to eight – has a computer, a console or device of some description. Two thirds of us have mobile phones and we all have iPads and tablets.

We are most definitely a very digitally connected family. Sometimes one of my sons will text me from his room upstairs to ask me something which in days of olde he might have just opened his bedroom door and shouted. And, I’m ashamed to say, I do the same. I’ll text them from the kitchen to tell them their dinner is ready to save my voice.

My teenagers spend most of their time online, conversing with real life friends in virtual worlds.They would rather text than talk, they tell me no one talks on the phone anymore, they ‘Snap’ instead. It’s quicker. I myself do a lot of my business online from sourcing interviewees to banking to shopping. It seems everything we do these days is with one foot in the virtual world. And I wonder, is that so wrong?

There has been talk recently about ‘Phone Zombies’ – people with the lit up blue faces, head stuck in phone and the real world completely zoned out. Various studies say that this disconnect with the real world can have a detrimental impact on mental health, on intelligence and on social skills.

But new research from the Mental Health Collective, derived from actual teenagers, has found that far from being a brainless and passive exercise being on your phone involves ceaseless decision making. They found that a typical hour spent on social media meant young people making 514 conscious decisions.

Parents are often chastising their children about being constantly on their phones but the study found that young people used it to escape boredom, find stimulation and connect with others.

They reported that far from blocking their emotions, their phones helped them feel and express emotions through music and messaging friends. Far from disconnecting them, it made them feel part of a community, helped them build and maintain connections and keep up to date.

Being on their phones, said the young people, gave them an autonomy they lack in other spaces – feeling judged at school, monitored at home and perhaps feeling threatened on the streets.

The research concluded that our young people are not passive victims, floating helplessly in a predetermined direction unless they are ‘saved’ by adults.

The findings suggested that decisions about technology need to be made together with young people, in the context of a broader set of choices about how we want to live as a society.

Perhaps our generation are fearful of our kids spending too much time on their phones in the same way that the generation before them felt we spent too much time watching television, that it was rotting our brains. We have to remember that this modern era is the world our children have been born into, what they are familiar with, what they do not fear and technology will be with them for their entire lives.

Some say spending hours on digital platforms is detrimental to the mental and physical well being of our young people. Others say embracing technology has huge educational and developmental benefits to young minds that outweigh any negative aspects.

I console myself with the fact by giving them access to the technology they will be armed with the information and skills – and indeed be savvy enough – to survive and thrive in what is fast becoming a digital world.

And that is also the view by sociologist Professor Eilis Cashmore of Aston University, whose book Screen Society tells us that banning kids from using the internet at home is ‘child abuse’.

Amongst other findings, the author declares that the risks of being online are grossly exaggerated and that it is in fact ‘tantamount to child abuse’ not to let your child have access to the internet. Rather than protect them from the dangers of online, he says it could impact on their sociological development, stop them from communicating, learning about the world and exposes them to ridicule from their peers.

His book argues that today’s kids are growing up in a world dominated by technology and that to deprive them of the access to technology would put them as a great disadvantage.

I agree to an extent. Kids should be technology-savvy. They need to be for that is the future and if they are not familiar with it they will be set adrift in an increasingly digital world.

Yet, there is still a case for everything in moderation. Increased screen time – particularly on often times toxic social media platforms – can lead to depression and isolation. And there is still, no matter what your teenager might think, much to be said for good old human contact and face to face conversations.