Jane Thynne felt concerned that her 13-year-old daughter was spending so much time online or texting that she had no time to think her own thoughts. So she banned all electronic screens from her bedroom after nine o’clock at night. This is from the Guardian…
This [the curfew] entailed removing her laptop, phone, Game Boy and all other screens from her room after 9pm at night, about an hour before she goes to sleep. The aim was to allow her this hour to think her own thoughts. An hour of interior life.
Our children, like most of their friends, are accessorised with both laptop and mobile phone. As a result, the potential for constant communication with their friends is ever present. Texting begins early morning and lets up last thing at night. Friends wake them up, friends say goodnight and Facebook fills all the gaps in between. The sweet, individualised ring tones that signify when a particular friend is texting beep from 6.30 am to 11pm, chirruping their insistent way through supper, homework, bath time and sleep. On the bus, kids attach their headphones and carry on. Technology embraces our children, like ourselves, in a warm electronic sea, and the tide of it comes ever higher.
Does this matter? Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, thinks it does. Last month she told the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that this “cyber-lifestyle” is rewiring our brains and even without making a value judgment, we need at least to acknowledge that there is an issue.
Others are not so wary of making a value judgment. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, claims that “loss of concentration and focus, division of our attention and fragmentation of our thoughts”, is changing how our minds work, creating shorter attention spans and making reading harder by destroying “the linear, literary mind”. Sue Palmer, in her new book, 21st Century Girls, goes all out for total technological cold turkey. “Allowing electronic strangers into a girl’s bedroom before her mid-teens is an extremely bad idea. If parents want their daughters to establish healthy sleeping habits they have to bite the bullet and insist that their bedroom remains a technology-free zone.”
Especially for girls, with their intimate, gossipy, social natures, the drive to remain as connected as possible with friends is overwhelming. Yet perversely, floating in an electronic sea has the deeper effect of depriving them of the habit of being alone, developing their own thoughts. Needless to say, my efforts to explain this to my daughter were pretty hapless. I dredged up the example of the hostage Terry Waite who got through years chained to a radiator in Beirut by the sheer strength of his interior life. My daughter listened politely, but her expression was incredulous. When was she ever going to be chained to a radiator in Beirut?
As a writer, married to another writer, Philip Kerr, I had one other, overriding concern. The key thing children miss out on without that moment of solitude before sleep, is reading. A generation ago, if you saw a light under a child’s bedclothes, it would be a torch illuminating some secretive paperback. Now the light under the bedclothes has changed to the blue phosphorescent glow of a laptop or an iPad or a phone, and it’s a dead cert that no one is reading Jane Eyre.
The concern that children aren’t reading isn’t new, of course – there’s a survey practically every day. A report by Professor Keith Topping for this year’s World Book Day, which looked at the reading habits of 300,000 pupils, found that reading ages were actually declining. Increasing numbers of 13 and 14-year-olds opted for books with a primary-school reading age.
Topping warned that that if children don’t engage with more sophisticated books, they will fail to engage with more sophisticated ideas. Universities complain that literature students arrive unable to master a full Victorian novel, so they have to study in bite-sized chunks. One English tutor from a Russell Group university tells of the time she asked her undergraduates to read Daniel Deronda. ‘What, all of it?’ they chorused in astonishment. I don’t believe you can overstate the case for literature, but whatever you think about the importance of George Eliot, reading also develops key life skills, including the empathy to place yourself imaginatively in another mind and the ability to sustain deep concentration.
My children would be the first to point out that I’m as bad as any teenager in wasting time on Twitter and Facebook. Those addictive social networks account for at least half an hour of my day that I won’t get back. Yet it seems a more grievous thing to rob a child of the chance to read. Particularly when I had the best of chances myself.