7 Nov 2014


I have found myself, at thirty two, the parent of two boys; a small one aged four and a tiny one who is not quite two. I had and continue to have every intention of restricting their access to screens in general and the internet in particular but in practice they are persuasive, I am over committed and I have not yet gathered the willpower to impose a new order. 

In the hour before dinner I am generally attempting to prepare a nutritious, organic, balanced meal and my tiny one likes to spend this time wrapped around my ankles delivering a monologue about a piece of paper he found on the floor. My small one is developing some passionately held and deeply illogical views about the concept of justice as it relates to him and to confectionery. He is skilled at recognising when I am approaching just the right balance of distraction and exhaustion, that sweet spot where he is likely to slide gracefully under my weakened defences and score a lollipop or a fruit roll as an aperitif. 

They also very much enjoy climbing the furniture and pushing each other off, to much hilarity.  

The iPad buys me a half hour of calm when I need it most, I can listen to radio 4 and the gentle snuffle of content, square eyed children while cooking and our home is calmer, happier place. The problem is that its very easy to fall back on the iPad whenever I am busy, and I am always busy. It's like having a mute button for toddlers. Half an hour can easily turn into an hour. Occasionally two if the unwashed laundry has reached critical mass. Not every day, but more often than I am happy to admit to. 

I know parking them on the sofa with a screen means that I am missing more appropriate opportunities to engage their questioning minds but I thought that was really the only concern. 

I don't yet have to worry about chat rooms, facebook, porn, online bullying or the hundreds of unknowable new technologies that my children will use to negotiate their social and professional lives ten or twenty years from now. I reasoned that during the toddler years you worry about keeping them dressed, clean, healthy and safe and you pay for their love and charm with less than four hours of unbroken sleep. 

As children grow into teens I imagine the trade off for a reliable eight hours of sleep and the end of mind melting questions like 'Mummy, why is my foot not a rainbow?' will be a fresh set of anxieties about how to keep them from harm in a digital landscape that is moving faster than many of us can keep up with. I am not there yet. 

The other night I inadvertently found myself at a lecture given by an internet security expert on protecting children online. It was held in my office, I'd been working late, I had met and liked the woman who had organised it and the subject matter seemed relevant. The speaker was excellent, the presentation was illuminating but it was one of those occasions where you don't realise you need to panic about something until you see that other people are. 

I came away from the evening with a complimentary packet of colouring pens and the chill of an unwelcome epiphany. 

The speaker pointed out, quite rightly, that many of us begin creating our children's digital identity almost immediately, sometimes before they are born. He invited a roomful of parents to think about how their children might feel about the identity we have created for them in the future. 

Reader, I was horrified. I am the very worst kind of digital parent. I posted my scan pictures on Facebook assuming in the smug, unhinged bubble of my pregnancy that the people from my high school history class would enjoy viewing an image of my uterus.  I clog up other peoples timelines with pictures of my children doing magnificently ordinary things like standing beside a tree. 

My children will be mortified by me anyway when they are of age because that is the way of things, and in many ways I am very much looking forward to it, but I have had a wakeup call about protecting their identity. I delude comfort myself that most babies are indistinguishable from one another to the wider world but as they become older and more distinctive in photos and as people I recognise it's time to dial back the pictures and update my privacy settings. 

I picked up plenty of tips to consider for the future, some obvious and some of which would never have occurred to me. It was suggested, for example, we should buy our children's domain names  (www.childsname.com) and pay the £6 or so a year it costs to keep it so that they will own that part of their digital identity should they need it as adults. He also encouraged us to set up a google alert for ourselves and our kids so that as soon as something about you is searchable on the internet, you know about it. 

The bit that shook me out of my not-yet-my-problem complacency was the revelation that this expert had spent a casual 20 minutes digging on the internet about one of the attendees (a complete stranger, with her prior permission) and delivered with a flourish, her name, home address, phone number, the nickname and a photo of her child and could pinpoint where she had spent the previous weekend and with whom. He found a big chunk of this information from a website she had registered with eight years ago and not used since. She couldn't even remember the name of that website. 

How many dormant bebo, myspace, friends reunited accounts are sitting forgotten in cyberspace stuffed with identifying information? If we don't yet look to protect our own information online how can we teach our kids how important it is to protect theirs? 

I came away convinced that deleting accounts from services you don't use anymore is a habit worth cultivating and that most of us should try to think back through the past decade and undertake a digital audit of our information. That sounds hard, and really very boring, and yet I think it's worth dedicating a few cranky hours on a Saturday afternoon.  

I am inspired to do better, to be better, to get on top of the issue while my children are still little so they grow up learning how to navigate digital spaces safely. I have every intention of implementing digital contracts between me and the boys, all technology devices in a basket at mealtimes and no internet access in the bedroom. 

Then I remember how convinced I once was that my toddlers would have less than an hour of screen time a week, would be unfussy eaters, would be reading by the age of three and would never suffer the indignity of going to nursery in mismatched socks.  I remain cautiously optimistic.