Unfair

Our eldest now petitions us daily for a smartphone. After all, she says, all her friends have one.

Suddenly, I am an old fogey. What on earth do you need a phone for?

She needs to stay in touch with her friends. I laugh: but you see your friends all day!

I am worried about cyber-bullying, about tech-addiction, about the impact of social media on emotional wellbeing, about grooming by predators and extremists — and, well, just becoming distracted by the shiny gadget at the expense of her studies and future.

But I am sensible, she retorts to my long list of concerns, and all my friends are sensible too. We’d just text each other, nothing more.

You can get a phone when you’re eighteen, like I did. “But phones had probably only just been invented then,” comes her cutting reply.

Our lad chips in: “All my friends have the latest phones. iPhone 12 Pro Max. Samsung S20.”

I don’t even know what those are. “Yes, but your dad isn’t a mug.”

Our eldest, soon to be a teenager, descends into a sulk, castigating me for being so restrictive. I remind her of the short-lived experiment with their Windows Phones during lockdown. Protestations of innocence.

If I had a phone, I could read books on it. Hmm. You have a Kindle, stuffed full with books you refuse to read. I could play games on it. There is a family computer in the living room you can use. But, but… “You just don’t understand. You’re so old… fashioned! You need to move with the times. It’s not the 1970s.”

I’m not a child of the seventies, I object; I was a child of the best decade. She’s not listening. “Even my cousin has a phone,” she says, convinced she’s onto a winner.

He has a long bus journey to school. I bet he has a gazillion gadgets, she replies. You have a gazillion gadgets too.

But, but… it’s time for a decisive strop. “You are so unfair,” she yells, charging for the door, “you’re so restrictive.”

The very next morning, a family friend calls, seeking help. It’s their daughter. She’s going through a rebellious streak. She’s upset that her parents are so restrictive, putting parental controls on her phone, then banning her from using WhatsApp because she’s not old enough yet.

Well, she’s cleverer than that, isn’t she? She simply minted a new account in a different name, made herself four years older and has been busy chatting with a presumed-to-be young man — a complete stranger — several years older than her, with whom she has been sharing inappropriate messages.

“But all my friends are doing it,” she protests. Her parents’ ears ring to familiar sounds: “You’re so unfair, so restrictive, it’s just not fair.” Now things have taken a turn for the worse.

I don’t feel so bad about my authoritarianism now. To our kids, I am just an ill-informed old fogey who knows nothing about technology. But in truth I am a techie, who makes his living from the web. I do not see it as the fount of all evil at all, but like the growing army of Silicon Valley heretics, I am cautious in my approach.

The internet and smart devices have great potential to enrich people’s lives. Even so, like any other aspect of our lives, they must be managed. Many smartphone apps are developed with the explicit intent of manipulating their users into their habitual use, creating hard-to-resist compulsions, if not addiction.

I do feel bad about depriving our children of something that all their friends apparently have access to — although this is hardly something new. At their age, I too had to navigate not having a Nintendo Gameboy or satellite TV. But those were simpler times.

A time may come when I must succumb to their demands. Until then, I will hold on to caution, even if that makes me so unfair: just a poker-faced dictator stuck in a lost era, no-longer real.

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