Today’s kids have never experienced a world without the internet. Rose Hoare asks how parents and grandparents are coping in a new, high-tech world.

Today's parents will be the last generation to remember what life was like before the internet. We are the last generation to embody values that aren't affected by constant connectivity. And sometimes it seems like it's our job to figure out how to use all this new technology in a way that doesn't displace some fundamental part of our humanity. Today's grandparents are the last generation to parent without devices, and it's already come to seem miraculous when they manage to entertain small children for a whole day without any screens.

Apple launched the iPad in 2010, and now, 72 per cent of New Zealand 6-14-year-olds use tablets daily, according to research done by the Broadcasting Standards Association last year. We've grown used to the eerie sight of kids who can't even wipe their own bums yet are able to navigate their way around a smartphone, staring intently as they pinch, swipe and tap, like they're checking their stock prices.

It's the same picture the world over. In America, kids now spend an average of 7.5 hours a day watching YouTube, listening to music, playing games, trawling social media. It's the thing they do the most, after sleeping. For under-12s, touchscreens are now the most popular toy.

No one really knows how this ends. Dr Heather Kirkorian, a professor of cognitive development, told tech magazine Wired, "Researchers know almost nothing about the impact of touchscreen technology on young children. Our society is running a large-scale experiment with real children in the real world, and we won't know the impact, if any, for many years to come."


Even the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), which issues some of the most robustly researched guidelines, has admitted that technology is developing too fast to be accurately studied.

"We are perpetually behind in our advice and our recommendations," its committee chairperson said last year.

In 1999, the AAP recommended no more than two hours a day of screen time for over-2s, and discouraged any screen time for under-2s. It also suggested no devices at dinnertime (as we all know, that's for forcible family socialising) or in the bedroom (which is for sleeping).

In 2011, the APP updated its policy, and will update it again this month, but one piece of advice it has maintained is to not let under-2s watch television. Even 12 years on, it said, "The educational merit of media for children younger than 2 years remains unproven despite the fact that three-quarters of the top-selling infant videos make explicit or implicit educational claims."

Kids under 2 are too young to learn from a screen. At that age, they learn best by communicating with other people, or even just hearing adults talk, and having the TV on, even in the background, even if it's Sesame Street, hampers their development. All the same, the AAP found that 90 per cent of under-2s were watching screens and, by 3, nearly a third of American kids had a TV in their bedroom.

In New Zealand, obesity researchers for the Ministry of Health recommend a maximum of one hour a day of screen time for 2-5 year olds, and nothing for under 2s. The reality? Most are watching double that, according to the BSA research. And the vast majority are choosing the content by themselves, and using the internet by themselves.

Clearly there's a massive gap between neat official guidelines and messy household realities. Parents may suspect that the time their kids spend poring over touchscreens might be bad for them, but they have also come to rely on them. We may hope that our kids are doing something educational. But does anyone hand over their phone or iPad to educate their kids? We hand them over in desperation, because they're a big, instantaneous mute button you can hit to stop fights or tears, to get you through long car rides, dinner preparations, or hangovers.

We hand over our phones in desperation, because they're an instantaneous mute button you can hit to stop fights or tears, to get you through long car rides or hangovers.

Touchscreen devices appear to be much more seductive, for kids, than TVs or computers. They're more intuitive and easier for a small child to master. They're more interactive, so kids are much more engaged, and the tasks they're doing are usually incentivised with some kind of reward - whether it's points, a correct answer, or raining sparkles. Some researchers believe this gratification stimulates the reward centre of the brain, generating a dopamine hit, which becomes addictive. Although iPad apps are intended to be engaging, for parents who've seen their child completely absorbed in a touchscreen to the point of not looking up or responding to their own name being called, or been faced with withdrawal meltdowns when the device is taken away, there's something chilling about the control they exert. Some researchers say that's "flow state", a coveted level of intense concentration that's highly pleasurable and associated with personal growth. For some parents, though, that's a clear signal to take the damn thing off them and put it somewhere high up.


Their pulling power is discomforting. A few years ago, when Disneyland hired researchers to figure out which aspects of their Florida theme park most appealed to little kids, they found that, more than the beloved characters, the amusement rides, the candy and the toys, the thing that most captivated kids was their parents' cellphones.

Child researchers praise "unstructured play" and "inner-directed" activities (i.e. stuff the kid thinks up) as the best way to develop creativity, problem-solving skills and independent thought. But today's parenting expectations are so punishingly high, the it feels like you can't just tell your kids to rack off and be bored anymore. Parents feel obliged to account for every second of their kid's day, and when they're at a loss, the iPad is an easy solution.

We either need to figure out how our kids can use technology more purposefully, or get more comfortable leaving them to their own devices so they can develop the one skill that's pretty much the secret to lifelong happiness: figuring out what it is that you love to do.

Despite the concerns we may have for the newest generation of digital natives, talking to some enlightened Kiwi parents reveals a more hopeful picture.

Lizzie Bayliss, 38, is a teacher at Bayfield School in Auckland. She lives with her husband Jake and kids Tulsi (4) and Joe (3).

"I'm not that strict, really. We try to eat dinner together most nights, but on Fridays the kids have a TV dinner. I know how easily a habit forms, so I try my hardest not to turn on the TV in the morning. Around an hour a day is the limit. One thing I've found really empowering and helpful is, rather than taking it off them, I get them to turn it off. We always have that ritual of reading books before bed.

"I taught Year 2s last year. We had a whole technology term that, ironically, we devoted to what I call #getoutside. I showed them a short of Project Wild Thing. It's a British documentary about a father who makes up a rule that, for every hour of screen time, you need an hour outside.

"We're in an Innovative Learning Space, with 110 kids and four teachers. We use a blog as a way for children to access their tasks, and our school is one of the highest users of a thing called ePlatform, where kids can issue books on their devices.

"I now teach Year 5 and 6, and we have an optional Bring Your Own Device policy. I wondered, at the beginning, if parents would think they would just be in the corner playing a game. But they just can't be. They've got so much to do - in a good way - that they don't have time.

"I've done a lot of thinking about e-learning and its value in school. We are in a bit of a sea change. Maybe we always are. Recently, my children had a maths task where there was a drawing of a cylindrical sports bag and some measurements, and they had to do a little bit of research online about pi, and then use it to figure out the pattern pieces they would need to make it. We didn't intend for it to keep going, but some kids were still interested in keeping on with it, to the point where the principal brought in her sewing machine and a student teacher brought in fabric. Here were these Year 6 boys sewing, and so stoked.

"In my ideal world, children's education would be a really good dose of online - discovering stuff,figuring stuff out - with an equal amount of making and doing."

Anna John, 68, has two children and four grandchildren, aged 3, 4, 5 and 6. She lives in Auckland, as do two of her grandkids.

"I'm very aware that their parents don't want them to be watching too much, but as soon as my grandchildren come here, all they want to do is play games on my little iPad. My little granddaughter, I only had to tell her the 4-digit passcode to get into it the once and she's remembered it. And being a grandparent it's really hard to say no.

"I'll make them play for a while and if they start getting a bit over the top, to get them to sit calmly, I'll let them watch the iPad for maybe 30-45 minutes. The younger one gets fed up and gets down from the couch, but the 6-year-old is just absorbed in it. If they start looking a bit tired and fidgety, I take it off them. They get a bit upset and I have to say 'you can have it later'.

"When my children were in high school, Young Doctors and Shortland Street came on and we'd all watch TV for three hours or even longer in the evening. There used to be a lot of programmes, like Diff'rent Strokes, that were aimed at children but the adults could watch, and they always had a moral to them. We could talk about them afterwards. My kids learned a lot about how to treat other people through watching those programmes. They don't seem to have that today.

"I don't think I was ever worried about video games. My son had a computer that he used to do schoolwork on. He had a few games that my brother in Japan sent him. I never thought anything of it back then. Apparently, it was good for dexterity, pushing buttons and that."

"It's hard to say no," says Anna John of granddaughters Clementine, 5, left, and Estelle, 3, using the iPad. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Julie Crean and Jel Legg have three sons. In 2013, they created the Screen Free Project, a web-site that shares information for parents looking to restore the balance in screen-dominated households.

JEL: "When our kids were around 12, they were getting up and going online for maybe 45 minutes and we were having to remind them to get ready for school. They'd come home from school and dive straight on to the screens, then we'd be pulling them away for dinner and, as soon as dinner was done, they'd be itching to get back. Then we'd be pulling them off for bedtime. It was like living in a zombie house."

JULIE: "We decided we needed some house rules. So we said: no screens before school, no screens after school. You can do your homework between 4 and 6pm, and then after the boys had washed up the dinner dishes, whatever time was left was fine for just TV, if they wanted it. It worked out to be around two hours a day.

"They were really good. The more they played along with the rules, the happier they were, so there was no conflict.

"We both work in digital marketing and web design. We have so many screens in our house it's outrageous, but we use them as tools for our work. Every given opportunity, we're off them and doing something else. So it's not that we're afraid of technology or we don't understand it. We just know the other side.

"Screens are seductive because it's consumption, and consumption is very easy. All you have to do is swipe and watch. You don't have to try, you don't have to fail, you just have to swipe and consume. There's something addictive about that."

JEL: "I divide the world into consumers and producers. It's okay to be on a screen if you're producing. You can do amazing things on computers. I've created albums, websites, wonderful things that are very useful. But I see many young people on the internet just consuming."

Helen Ma migrated to New Zealand from Taiwan when she was 14. In 2000, she moved to California and was part of the team that delivered the first iPhone and iPad. Today, she's a parent to five kids aged 1 to 19 and is the iOS engineering manager at Athos, which develops wearable tech that monitors biosignals for data-driven workouts.

"Screen time is a big source of conflict. It's been difficult for me to enforce limits because I had to tell my kids the truth, which was that I used to stay up playing video games. Also, whether it was beating Halo together, or dancing DDR, or karaoke with SingStar, it was quality bonding time.

"Screen time should be considered in the larger context of your goals as a parent. It's not only what kind of relationship are you building with the child, but what relationship are you building between the child and technology. It's not a question of how many hours, but how those hours are spent and how it's managed. Instead of focusing on setting limits, help children master setting their own limits. The most important attitude to impart is that technology serves us.

"My parents wanted me to be a chemical engineer because they thought computers were a fad. But our civilisation has been moving at such pace in the last century, and continues to accelerate. Parents have to accept that they may not understand the world their children have to be adults in. We should help our children see technology as something empowering, something that'll help them achieve more than we can imagine.

"By the way, it's becoming clear to me that touchscreens are a mere stepping stone and will be as anachronistic as typewriters in 10 years."