Yvonne Roberts: When did you last see your children?

Modern teenagers live in digital worlds of their own, online and on the phone. Here an author and mother says families are being fractured as a result
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The Independent Online

Once upon a time, it was skipping ropes, colouring books and, perhaps, a Dansette record player in their room. Now, the average 11-year-old is mistress of her own digital universe, communicating to friends in a tortured text, and adults aren't all that welcome. She may live in the same house as them, and even occasionally eat at the same table, but she is also likely to have an active and complex life that they don't understand and can't find a way to penetrate. What does her isolation do for family life? How will it affect her? And what will its legacy be when she grows up and raises children of her own?

A study of the effect on children of the explosion in media choices by the regulator Ofcom has revealed juniors to be at ease with a technological world that is utterly alien to many parents. The survey discovered, for instance, that 90 per cent of girls aged 12 to 15 own a mobile phone (as do 77 per cent of boys). Six out of 10 girls use the internet (as do almost half of boys).

Ofcom warns of the dangers of children being catapulted into the digital future without sufficient adult mediation of what is sometimes a dark and unsettling landscape. One in five of those aged between eight and 11 engages in "solitary" television viewing. Four in 10 use the internet alone (among those aged 12 to 15, this rises to seven in 10). One in six young people reported coming across "worrying" material online.

Many parents said they imposed rules (although not all their offspring were aware of this) but only half of parents have installed software to block access; two-thirds admit their children know more about the medium than they did. Much more, in my case.

I text gingerly, using every letter in the alphabet, taking longer than a local bus ride, much to the frustration of my daughters; I have to find my 11-year-old every time I want to use the DVD; never surf the net for fear of being lost in space; and I drive the iMac support staff, trained to deal with the most illiterate of internet dullards, close to cyber-suicide. My offspring are techno-veterans. So, how alarming is all this poppet power?

"Technologies such as the internet and mobile phones, on one level, do empower children," says the psychotherapist and counsellor Dr Sheri Jacobson. "The young will be well-served if computer-literate and amenable to technological learning.

"Some children assume they know more than their parents, but technological skills do not equate to life skills. The use of the internet and computers, in excess, can lead children to have a false view of the world as being within their total control."

Children have always had communities of their own to which adults had little access, says Dorit Braun of the charity Parentline Plus, the largest provider of parental support in the UK. "Post-war, children went out to play at breakfast and returned for tea. Now, at home, they have the internet and worldwide access. That, somehow, allows them to be more easily exploited than in a known neighbourhood. The digital world is one parents haven't experienced themselves, so it it seems that much more fearful."

So what are the implications ? Does passive, isolated activity on the net affect a child's ability to socialise? Or is it opening up a welcome "window on the world"?

Might their wholehearted embrace of hi-tech impede their own capacity to parent later, and how can adults best monitor their children's digital domains? Or is all this simply the overreaction of Luddite parents, unnecessarily panicked because they have difficulty with the rewind button?

Well, almost every other parent has a story of 21st-century techno-banditry from which they have been unable to protect their child. "It's a conundrum; the mobile phone allows you to know your child is safe, but it also turns him into a target," says a mother whose son was robbed of his phone three times in three years in his early teens. "Being mugged does a lot to destroy a child's self-confidence and trust."

In the weird word of websites favoured mostly by girls (Neopets, Dollz Mania, Head2Toe et al), there is also highway robbery. In spite of all the warnings not to give personal information, one 10-year-old was tricked by another child into giving away her password, and was profoundly shocked to find that all her points had been stolen as well as her website identity.

It doesn't stop there. In 2002, the children's charity NCH found that 16 per cent of young people had received bullying or threatening text messages; 7 per cent had been harassed in chat rooms and 4 per cent by email. And, of course, the shadow of the paedophile stretches far. So, to many parents, it appears a scary digital jungle, but is it?

In June, the charity 4Children launches a "childhood commission" to consider what constitutes childhood today and in the future, including the impact of the digital revolution. Its chief executive, Anne Longfield, says: "The internet, in particular, offers mixed blessings. A teenage boy, for instance, turns on the internet and talks to someone in Poland or Russia, which is mind-blowing for the older generation. Yet for him to have a normal dialogue with the boy next door proves difficult. Virtual reality relationships are very distant and lacking in accountability. It can be a lonely world.

"When you look in the community, where positive lessons in social interaction can be learnt and fun had, more than 80 per cent of young people say they have nothing to do in their area. So, they are driven back indoors." Beneath the technological veneer, children are just the same as they ever were, she says. "They want to feel secure and safe."

Professor Sue Bailey, a child and adolescent forensic psychiatrist, says the internet "can positively help vulnerable children with specific difficulties, for instance in literacy, but we also have very hard evidence that it can have a harmful effect on that same vulnerable child when accessed willy-nilly. Say he has personally witnessed domestic violence and suffered from trauma. Then he spends hours watching a diet of violence. He may well become interested in turning into the 'baddy exterminator' in real life."

Spending large amounts of time with inanimate devices is also problematic, says Dr Jacobson. "Our evolutionary roots have shown us to be social creatures. We need to interact with each other on a number of levels, feeding, fighting, sharing and supporting.

"Electronic media have the significant drawback of denying children those stimuli, and one of the most important is the child-adult bond from which they experience and learn so much."

Early positive attachments can be crucial for our emotional development, including the ability to become a good parent later on, she says. There is little we can do to reverse the rise of technologies, Dr Jacobson concedes. "The best bet for parents is to partly meet children in their technological world and partly to introduce children to other possibilities, say a game of football." What that requires is parental time and inclination; digital "nannies" do have their attractions.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell has said, in reference to the digital revolution, that "media literacy... is as important to our development as was universal literacy in the 19th century... The most insidious digital divide is between those equipped to understand and those who aren't."

At present, many children think they understand, and parents know they don't. Perhaps it is time for the Luddites to learn.

FAQs on internet safety and a SmartNet guide for children are available on www.nch.org.uk

'I chat online when I should be revising'

Holly Graham is a 17-year-old from north London. She has been using a mobile, e-mail and instant messaging since the age of 11, and has recently developed an addiction to the online community MySpace.

Teenage girls are leading the technological revolution? Personally, I'm not surprised. Given that we have, since the dawn of time (well, since Clueless), been spending hours on the phone, it is not surprising that this has transferred from the landline to the mobile, and mobile to the internet.

Other than mobile phones, MSN Messenger is probably the most obvious example of our obsession with technological communication. It is an instant messaging service, where, after adding your friends, you can chat to them when both of you are logged on to the internet - but it is basically a less dangerous version of a chat room. How much less dangerous is debatable, because although you are not as easily accessible to people who don't know you, it still provides a brilliant way to subtly avoid doing any real homework.

The technological revolution has allowed girls to test their ability to multi-task more than anything else. There are countless websites and TV programmes with which to hone our skills of procrastination. While we sit in front of computers, attempting to revise or do homework, there is the constant temptation to log on to the internet and chat to friends without our parents' knowledge.

Online communities are a more recent development. I have now succumbed to the ultimate teenage addiction: MySpace. My obsession with it has got so bad that I am going to have to delete my account. MySpace is a strangely addictive online community where members have their own website, and so, two weeks before my A-levels, I find myself spending whole evenings reading about other people's taste in music. I know I should be revising, and the panic is rising as the exams loom, but there is a perverse thrill in frittering away the time online instead.

Of course, our parents are worried about internet safety. But rest assured, our generation is starting to understand the dangers that come with technology developments. Learning about web safety is part of the official growing-up process (you can tell this because they teach it in PHSE at school, along with boys and deodorant.)

Anyway, I better go - someone just left a comment on MySpace.