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.

It seems that parents are just as addicted to their devices as their kids, if not more.

According to a new report by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based organization that examines the impact of technology and media on families, more than one-third of teenagers and over one-quarter of parents wake up and check their mobile device for something other than the time at least once during the night.

According to the research, which asked 1,000 families for their opinion, almost four in 10 teenagers say that their parents are too often glued to a screen, and 38 per cent of them even went as far as actually stating that mum or dad had become addicted to their device.

With numerous studies linking excess screen time to poor sleep to mental health problems, physical health issues, decreased cognitive and academic performances, researches have urged parents to use the stark findings as a wake up call for themselves – not just the teenagers they are constantly telling to put away their phone – to put their own phone down so that their kids will follow suit.

Being a reporter my phone is never out of my hand. It is, sadly, the last thing I look at at night and the first thing I reach for in the morning. And, in a do as I do, not as I say kind of way, my teenagers often fall asleep with their phones beside them.

This is a digital world our kids are growing up in and it is good that they are familiar with technology, but they also must realise when it is time to switch off, perhaps even take a digital detox also. And it is us adults who have to lead from the front.

With our phones in our hands we are constantly reachable, constantly able to distract, constantly connected to the cyber world and not the real one. We need to assess our online use and adjust accordingly.

Some people believe that keeping their kids from experiencing online altogether is the best course of action. Others believe that restricting them to an hour a day is best. I think that striking a happy medium is the appropriate plan of action. We don’t need to be going mad and throwing out all our devices.

I console myself with the fact by giving my kids 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 told us last year that banning kids from using the internet at home is ‘tantamount to child abuse’.

The book looked at the habits of 2,000 internet users and drew insights from users of smartphones, tablets and computers – what the authors call Screenagers.

Amongst other findings the author declared 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 argued 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.

Teenagers, and indeed adults, do not need to be falling asleep with their phones in their hands like some manner of online-addicted cyborgs.

They, and indeed us, need to be switching off at appropriate times to ensure we are well enough rested to deal with the challenges the real world throws at us every day.

Put the phones down from time to time – parents and kids – and enjoy what is in front of you.