Catherine O'Mahony: 'We fret about our kids being smartphone addicts, but we're all hooked on online gossip.'

It’s been another week to fret about how much time children are spending online. This is fast becoming one of the pet peeves of modern life. It’s easier, I guess, to focus on the speck in our kids’ eyes than the beam in our own – but more of that later.

In any case, you can hardly blame anyone who is worrying about kids. The provocation is huge. We are reminded of the dangers every time there’s a near miss with an attempted internet grooming or some new statistics that show us the scale of juvenile addiction to gadgets.

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This week it was CyberSafeIreland, a charity that teaches schoolchildren about safety online, that terrified us all with its research showing that 12pc of eight-year-olds are spending more than four hours online per day. Among 13-year-olds, this rises to one third.

Even scarier, 43pc of children are interacting regularly with ‘strangers’ online, which sounds truly frightening (although we should probably bear in mind how many of those ‘strangers’ are just other children playing games like Fortnite, rather than dangerous paedophiles). But still.

Why can’t children have identifiable friends like they once did? Ones who knock at the door?

We have elevated to an art the business of wringing our hands about it all.

To be absolutely clear, I am no exception. I worried especially about the timing of the first smartphones.

It’s retreated back to First Communion time now, it seems – a few years ago you had to wait until secondary school. Will it come to the point where we will be handing them smartphones as they trot into junior infants? Will the devices be a third birthday gift?

And then there’s the online bullying. We know it happens in real life but we can all too easily imagine just how nasty it must be for children whose tormentors can access them at home. What effect is it having on their psyches? Is it making them anxious? Is it going to make them depressed?

And we worry about porn, of course. Unless we are supernaturally vigilant, the chances are very high that our kids will either deliberately seek it out or come across it accidentally. We are still not sure which one is worse. We would just prefer they didn’t. We don’t want them sexualised too soon, or traumatised, or both. We want it all to go away.

Oh, the wholesomeness of our aspirations for our families!

We want to bring back country walks, hours of doing nothing and KerPlunk. We want picnics, tic tac toe, an abacus. Whatever happened to Monopoly, playing cards, skipping ropes?

READ MORE: Dr Ciara Kelly: It’s time to wise up and insist on ‘dumbphones’

What about marbles, for heaven’s sake? They were brilliant. Or conkers? Why can’t the kids get back into them? How will children ever learn to communicate properly, for God’s sake? They don’t even talk to each other on their phones – they just play games or exchange images. They’ll be savages!

And so we drone on, and as we do, we check our phones in case we miss anything vital. Just in case. There might be a new email or something on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group about that overhanging branch. Or a news alert.

A Kardashian might have done something. Or Boris. Or Trump. Meghan Markle might have done something interesting. There’s so much news to follow. Many of us so love to keep a very close eye on current affairs, even those of us who aren’t journalists. One of my friends actually calls herself the Head of Global News, though she most definitely isn’t. She may as well be, she says, for the amount of news content she consumes daily. Why does she bother? It’s there, she says. It’s addictive.

It is time, fellow adults, to take a long hard look at ourselves and to ask how our own behaviour measures up to the standards we say we desperately want for our kids.

Could it be that we are ever so very slightly hypocritical?

There has been another report about personal technology in recent weeks and this one was from the communications regulator ComReg. It found that Irish people, on average, spent roughly four-and-a-half hours on their mobile phones each day. They meant adult people. And this was not work business in offices – it was not on PCs, not at work per se. Just on their phones. We are glued to them.

Before you start to say you have important phone calls to make, ComReg said just 10pc of the time on phones was taken up by talking.

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That leaves an awful lot of minutes of Facebook. Instagram. YouTube. WhatsApp. Netflix. Maybe you’re a Twitter tyrant. Whatever it is that we are all doing with those 243 minutes, it’s safe to assume it’s very probably not urgent business and it’s almost certainly happening at the very same time that we could be busily dragging our kids outdoors to play football, or gather conkers, or buy marbles (do they still exist?) or whatever other pleasant activity we say we want them to pursue.

So time for a tally.

How many hours have you spent aimlessly surfing the internet this week when you might have been organising a game of Monopoly?

What’s the ratio of your hours of casual gaming relative to the time spent teaching your kids to play a round of Twenty- Five, for instance, or how to build a Lego model?

I have examined my own record on such matters and it slightly makes me wish I still attended confession (another old habit I seem not to have time for).

If I did, I might say: “Forgive me Father, but I have spent a cumulative 17 hours this week ignoring everyone and everything in my home so I wouldn’t miss the latest on John Bercow, Victoria Beckham or the gossip from Bake Off. I have kept my phone in sight while I was eating dinner this week on at least five occasions. I broke off seven conversations with my kid to check an incoming WhatsApp. These are my sins.”

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I am not sure there are enough Hail Marys to purge my sins.

My real penance, in any case, is the knowledge that I have no leg to stand on when I moan about kids wasting their lives on their smartphones. Because I am right there before them, smartphone in hand, showing them the true adult way. As are most of us.

And as we are all fond of saying, kids are like sponges. They learn fast.

If I had a euro for every time my offspring complained I was half-listening to them because I had half an eye on my phone, well, I’d be very rich indeed.

I hate to give you yet another thing to worry about.

But at least this is one you can change. If you want to.

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