Image created by my 5-year-old son

For parents over, give-or-take, the age of the 35 the ease and familiarity with which children use technology today is at best perplexing and at worst terrifying. Now, according to the editorial in the latest issue of Psychologies magazine, there is some evidence to suggest that computers may cause psychological problems in later life. The magazine cites a study by Bristol University’s Angie Page (more on this here) which finds that children spending over two hours a day at a computer screen have a 60 per cent higher risk of psychological problems. So, for those of us whose childhood memories are of wind-in-the-hair freedom, Ladybird books and spot of benign telly when the nights drew this is something of a relief. The computer after all, must be to blame for poor literacy skills, increases in violence and the rise in teenage pregnancies – the list goes on.  It is certainly a view the Daily Mail would have us believe.

But not everybody thinks so. Internet psychologist Graham Jones says when people blame the internet on poor attention spans or literacy skills they are failing to take into consideration  a whole range of other social factors. People want to blame computers but when it comes to ‘media’ they forget that many children are now exposed to around 300 satellite channels not to mention more books and magazines than ever before, he told me in an interview this morning.

Ten years ago the UK published around 50,000 books now it is around 300,000 and WHS Smith even had to reconstruct its shelving units to cope with the weight of magazines. So there is information wherever we look and not all of it is worth watching or reading. Jones, interviewed for forthcoming book I am writing on online safety for children to be published by White Ladder, is also worried that there are some technical issues with how some of the research into the internet’s impact on children is carried out. One problem, he says, is that our memory of childhood is largely reconstructed in our own brain, and what we (and many researchers) remember of childhood is often not quite how it was.

One of the biggest worries today, he says, is that children are either doing far too much of what they should not be doing online or missing out on some incredible opportunities. This is largely down to parents’ ignorance or apathy. Children who are encouraged to blog, for example, are proving to have much higher levels of literacy than children who do not. On the flip side underage children who are signing up to Facebook could jeorpardise their future as future employers may question their integrity. Worst case scenarios are the risk that your credit card details – yes yours – are being misused, that your children are being exposed to violent pornographic content or are being groomed by paedophiles. And if you did not have enough to worry about, as internet-enabled mobile technology use becomes increasingly prevalent among young people the risks become greater still. Indeed, the advice to keep your computer in a public space starts to look rather dated. As Internet Safety Day approaches this is, indeed, food for thought.

UK-based parents if you can find the time in your busy schedules – wishful thinking I know – I would be grateful if you could complete this survey on online safety for children.

February 2, 2011

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