Lessons from the 1980s……
Last weekend I suddenly felt old, very old. The trigger was a rotary dial telephone that my 10 year old son discovered in a shop. He didn’t know what it was, and when I explained he proceeded to try and tap the finger wheel to make a call. The concept of manually dialling numbers was completely alien to him – the rotary dial phone was an artefact from ancient history.
So we talked about Buzby, about ‘Eardiston 264’ – my Worcestershire childhood phone number – and what life was like before mobiles and the internet. Growing up can be an anxious and confusing process. As children change mentally and physically, they can become less sure of themselves and self-confidence wains. As a consequence, children can feel the need to be ‘revalidated’ every day by being popular, witty, wanted and needed. In the social media world this revalidation can be quantified through ‘likes’ ‘followers’ and Snapchat friends.
In my pre-mobile, pre-internet, rotary dial telephone childhood, I suffered from the same teenage angst and also needed to feel popular and wanted. This, however, could only happen during school hours when I could seek the affirmation and approval of my peers and teachers. Once I got home to rural Worcestershire that was it. The British Telecom of the 1980s didn’t do social media, and apart from the occasional awkward teenage telephone conversation overheard by my parents, there was no contact outside the family until the next school day. I effectively experienced enforced social isolation. I didn’t like it at the time but in hindsight it was, on balance, a good thing.
Children really benefit from some down time, free of social interaction with their peers, when they don’t have to be popular, witty, or act as a counsellor for their friends. There was a lot of down time in 1980s rural Worcestershire and I used it to complete homework, read, play sport, explore the countryside and even talk to my parents. I could do this without having to worry about what other people might be saying about me online, or what social media profile I needed to create and sustain. When the school day ended, social pressure ended and everything was on hold until tomorrow.
Fast forward to 2019 where many young people feel pressured to be socially active and popular both from 8.30am – 4.30pm in school and from 4.30pm to late outside of school. It is not just the duration of the contact that has changed but its nature. In 1980s Worcestershire, if out-of-school contact was achieved by dialling Eardiston 264, it was short and audio in nature. Rotary dial phones did not come with cameras. In 2019, images and videos taken on mobile phones dominate social media sites. Social contact today lacks any boundaries, is frequent and is both audible and visual. Combined, these put children under pressure.
For the teenager unsure of their place in the world, the pressure to sound and look good 24/7 has never been greater. Unchecked, this pressure can have negative impacts on self-esteem, sleep, homework and family life.
Just as media outlets struggle to find enough content to fill their airwaves and column inches for every hour of every day, so do 24/7 teenagers. In the 1980s when time for communication was limited there was simply not the opportunity in a quick conversation in the lunch queue to critically analyse another child’s behaviour or appearance to the same degree as social media now allows. Small school incidents that would never have been reported in the pre-internet world now become hot topics for discussion and distortion on-line, with multiple texts and messages turning metaphoric molehills into emotional mountains. Children know this and it can make them anxious about getting even minor things wrong that will then be reported and distorted by their peers.
Children love the connectivity that mobile phones and the internet bring – it is why so many spend so long on them. Used well such connectivity can be very positive both in terms of academic study with access to world class educational websites, and wider development as pupils use digital technologies creatively to work as a team to solve challenges. But you can have too much of a good thing and unchecked connectivity can lead to anxiety, gaming, gambling, sleep deprivation and linked issues such as depression and anger management.
My advice to parents is that boundaries should be put in place to minimise the risks of children experiencing the downsides of excessive phone and internet use. It may be rather old-fashioned and ‘nanny state’ like, but teenagers need mobile phone/computer-free bedrooms and having phone curfews with phones/computers switched off a minimum of an hour before bed improves sleep, wellbeing and performance in school.