Lorranie Candy's brilliant piece "Parenting and the Empathy Gap" about teen disconnection and lack of compassion sent shivers down my spine. Harry is only 9 so not quite there yet but, I did have any early glimpse of what it can be like.
Two years ago during a very wet February half term break at my parents, Harry had complete overload of tech. The rain poured, I was looking after Wilfy, a very active toddler, and Harry quietly and cleverly rotated a circuit from Ipad to TV to computer and back. He kept out of everyone's way, didn't make a squeak and no-one noticed. Throughout the week behaviour deteriorated - the hoodie came up, he grunted instead of speaking, he was tearful, he was moody.
What shocked me most was what happened when we left. Usually Harry is full of kisses and hugs and "I'm going to miss you’s” for granny, grandpa, their dogs, his bedroom etc etc but this time was quite different. When we were due to drive back to London, he put down grandpa’s Ipad, walked like a zombie to the car, put his seat belt on and that was it. No hugs, no kisses, no goodbyes. The silence and disconnection was troubling.
It was only the next day when I bumped into a friend at the school gates that everything became clear. Harry had suffered a tech-overload. The tears, tantrums and zombie like behaviour were the result of excessive screentime. I had seen the impact with my own eyes. The next day harry and I set about working out how we could manage his screentime, TimeTokens were born and we haven't looked back.
A friend used to edit her 10 year old daughters texts, “You can’t write what you wouldn’t say to someone’s face” used to be her mantra. But she’s realised that does not really wash as her daughter will still say things to her friends faces which would make your toes curl. Where has the “empathy” barometer gone.
As Andrew Halls (Head of private school Kings College Wimbledon) says excessive screentime is leading to a lack of empathy in children and I couldn't agree more. “Technology has cut the threads between us. We need children to engage in life beyond the screen." He is so concerned about this issue he's setting up special lessons at the school to teach teens what empathy is all about - what a brilliant idea.
I completely agree with him that volume of screentime is one of the main contributing factors. Finding a healthy balance and giving your child the tools to help them learn to self regulate has to be the answer.
I'm so grateful to have got such an early insight into the effects of screentime. If it hadn't been for that wet miserable half term break we would never have invented TimeTokens and been able to give so many families a framework to establish healthy screentime habits.
Parenting Hacks: Boost your kids’ emotional literacy
Literature improves a child’s comprehension that other people have their own distinct thoughts, beliefs and aims. Discuss and debate characters’ motivations.
Model empathy by actively listening to your child when they’re upset. This demonstrates the emotional value of being heard. Engage with and echo their sentiments.
Challenge your child to imagine what it’s like being in another person’s shoes. Whether it’s a classmate or a person in the news, how do they feel? What’s their story?
Parenting isn’t about perfection: you can be vulnerable in front of your child. Give them a license to offer empathy by explaining why you feel sad, angry or upset.