Left to their own devices


I could leave you, say good-bye. I could love you if I try, and I could, and left to my own devices I probably would,” sang The Pet Shop Boys in 1988.

It’s not one of the best songs ever written, but the ‘left to my own devices’ stuck in my mind, and, these days we are often left to our devices, of a different kind. We all have various (mobile) devices, and we reach for them with increasing alacrity these days. That’s fine, I assume, as long as we are performing our main functions, such as conversing with our fellow human beings, giving attention to our friends and family, doing some meaningful work and getting out and about in the sunshine every now and again.

The question is, how much is the next generation on their devices, and is that good, or bad? As parents, it can be easy to plonk the iPad in front of the children to entertain them at the restaurant, or when we want some peace. But what message does this send? That, when eating out, we don’t want them to converse across the table? That their needs and questions are of no import? What kind of parenting is that?

A few years ago, Taiwan introduced a law restricting the amount of time children should have on screens and devices. Apart from the obvious issue of how on earth do you police such a thing, was Taiwan correct in doing so, and if so, why? Juveniles, so said the new law, “may not constantly use electronic products for a period of time that is not reasonable,”  which begs the question, how much time is “not reasonable“? Parents and guardians could be fined up to A$2,000 or so if found in breach of the law.

I expect the answer is somehow in a happy medium. 6 to 9 hours a day glued to a screen, I think we all can agree, is not healthy. Kids need to get out and run about, climb trees, play sport, ride bikes, interact, and get up to all kinds of nuisance. Is it that we (helicopter) parents are buzzing around too much these days, not allowing kids to be kids? Local comedian Griff Longley certainly thinks so, and he has set up a not for profit organisation Nature Play that encourages parents and their kids to get out doors and do stuff. Like make cubbies. Whatever, just get out there and do things. Together. Unstructured. Like we used to. “It’s OK to stuff up and have stuffups”, says Longley. Dang right. It builds resilience, it’s how we learn.

I wonder if the screens are just an easy babysitter option, or actually serve some positive purpose for the children? Simply taking them away is not the answer. The devices are out there, everyone has them, and to deprive children of them is to hold them back compared to their peers. Certainly, there needs to be some happy balance between active play and iPad consumption. Certain hours of ‘screen time’ can be negotiated, depending if it’s a school night, weekend or holiday. Screen time can include all screens, TV, play stations, Wii and mobile devices.

For younger kids, I’m a fan of the Family Zone service, which can be set up on every device, and provides screening of everything the child does online, limiting access to questionable sites, and allowing the parent to set times when devices can be used, and when they can’t, anywhere. I’ve found children are fine with rules, as long as they are clearly explained, and consistently enforced.

In this digital age, we shouldn’t ban our kids from being online, or becoming confident with technology. It is going to be a huge part of their living and working lives. They should certainly understand there is a place for devices, and certain times when they are put away. The precise rules, I reckon, like everything, are up to the parent and child themselves to negotiate and enact.

Leaving them to their own devices, I certainly would not.

About the author

Charlie has spent more than 20 years in Perth’s tech and startup sector, firstly as a founder himself, through to exit, and more recently as a writer, advisor and investor. Originally from the UK, Charlie worked in Singapore before arriving in Perth in 1997 to do an MBA at UWA. Graduating as top student in 1999 he set up online real estate business aussiehome.com, running it for 10 years before selling to REIWA, whereupon Charlie ran reiwa.com. In 2013, he moved to Business News to lead their digital transformation as CEO, and then worked for the federal government’s Accelerating Commercialisation program, funding pre-revenue startups and innovative businesses. He now works in an advisory capacity for multiple tech and other businesses, is managing editor of Startup News and co-host of the Startup West podcast. He also writes a column for Business News on startups. Charlie sits on the advisory boards of WA Leaders, TEDxPerth, WAITTA, the Perth Symphony Orchestra, and the full board of Rise Network.

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