If there is one question that I get asked most often, it is this – how can it be okay for my child to be on the mobile phone so many hours each day?

I have heard this question from CEOs, from casual friends, from attendees at conferences, and indeed from teachers. I have different parts of the answer for each of them, for no one simple response can be complete in under a minute. But it was when a social media friend, who I have now known for almost a decade asked me this again, I had to respect the intent of the question and respond more completely. Here it is, for him and for all of you.

There are undeniable benefits to enabling children to the mobile phone, and building a degree of comfort with the rest of the world in ways that seems almost magical to those of us who are digital immigrants. Our children are not quite immigrants in this land of tech and information, but they are not the digital natives of print and fable either. They are pioneers in this land, and it is this that will determine whether it is good for them or not.

Pioneers in any land need to learn the language, the lay of the land and learn how to keep themselves safe – these are first order skills that are essential to survive the space. So too, our young digital pioneers. If they are operating in the digital space esp via mobiles in ways that are unsupported by grown ups, or do not have parental controls, or have not been instructed by grown ups in figuring out how to keep them safe, then we are headed for trouble at the first step itself. It would be great if a single lecture from parent or teacher type authorities was enough to keep our kids safe, but we know that it doesn’t work that way.

Since mobile phones have smaller screens that are easy to angle away from parental sight, it is even trickier than a laptop or a desktop which can be supervised with a light touch. Mobile phones, we have to admit are now so easy to access, and the language of the digital world so much easier for the next generation, that it is often the grown up still playing catch up – even if we pretend not to be laggards here. In an ideal world, we would be able to join in all the groups, and all the games our kids play on our phones, and I would certainly recommend that as one of the strategies to adopt. If nothing else, at least there will be something in common to talk about – and at best, it will lead to deeper engagement, and a more meaningful conversation with them about the kinds of other players or social media connects out there. By demonstrating engagement, one establishes a little more credibility as a digital inhabitant, and this is common ground that truly helps. If common ground feels ambitious (especially if you are dealing with a teen), then at least a thread that connects.

Having established common ground – and I assure you, this was the easy bit, even if it did not feel so – the challenge is to nudge. Some of our children are incredible, and learn so much online, that we begin to wonder at their intelligence, their ability to absorb much faster than us – and indeed at the pace of evolution that has created such wondrous creatures as our progeny. Surely, they must be the smartest kids on the block, or indeed, the world. I have heard many parents speak with awe of how much their kids engage with the mobile, and how much they know. It is true, that educational apps are wonderful these days, and learning on the mobile is far more fun than our schools used to be. Even more than fun, these apps are designed with care, since each of them tries to achieve only one specific thing, so they are often more comprehensive than a normal school lesson. Combine the ability to revisit, and the online learning model feels even more powerful. Testing, machine learning and thence customisation are already helping our online learners to be more achievement oriented than simple seekers – and this sounds more impressive than it should. As a tool for exploration, say, for example, the world map, the mobile is a great asset. As a narrow focus tool for improving test scores, it is awfully useful too, but then again, one has been reduced to a slave of another system.

And that is the trouble with mobile addiction – that one is inevitably as slave to another system. The colonisation of the mind is insidious, and it follows the possession of the body and time. This is why parents are worried, as they see their children turn into virtual zombies. Some of them are so intent on their devices that their response times in the real world are genuinely slowed down. They look up from the phone with glazed eyes, unable to focus immideately or easily on the reality around them. It is no surprise, the virtual world is relatively full of unknown wonders, great challenges and unexpected rewards. I find myself reading out a joke from twitter to the family, wondering about an event I see on facebook, and sharing a dress I spot on instagram – and often I don’t even need to step back into the real world to do so, I can continue to engage online, on my phone to connect with all of my world. As can the children – but even more so. Their worlds are smaller than ours, and more, they are constructing their worlds as we go along. They may chose to construct their connection channels via the virtual world, or the digital world, or both. And we know, for sure, that they prefer to engage via virtuality. The virtual distance is something they prefer to actual contact. So it is easier for the young to message someone to borrow a bowl of sugar, than to walk over, ring the bell, engage in polite greetings and then make the request. The cost of the transaction to them, (and to many of us grown ups too) is far more than the cost of the online transaction.

But this is where our online engagement works as a beacon. It is up to us to be controlled, It is up to us to be creative. And it is up to us to be able to demonstrate the value of a world outside the phone. Our controlling our own screen time is a direct signal in self discipline and grit to the child. There is nothing stronger than a live example, so if you are able to lead with the self, half the battle that bothers you is already won. Creativity comes in now, as the next step – find ways to both enable learning time on the phone, and enable time to grow up with technology but also to draw the line. One could set limits, or one could set targets. One could specify zones, or ask for self discipline. I am a fan of self discipline – it may be harder work but if it is not imposed, then one has laid a strong foundation for much else in life, not just managing mobile phone timings. Many of us have been guilty of using mobile phones as virtual baby sitters – and so, I’m cool with – this is mommy’s me time, here’s the mobile. Or, this is four hours of school work, you have earned 15 mins on the device. Both are a bit – uncreative, I’d say. We can do better. I could go on with detailing creative solutions here with real life examples, but that can come another time.

Demonstrating, and creating real life experiences that are more interesting than anything that can be found in the phone is a true turn of the century challenge for any parent. We are being asked to beat the collective intelligence and progress of our own species by devising solutions that only use the tools of the past century. But this is where the true connect happens, and we are able to work through values such as empathy, sharing, caring and build the habit of nurture. This is where we are doing the real work of raising human beings who are much more than the product of machine based reductionist learning. For all the 3D versions of all the games we see so far, including VR and AR experiences, there is nothing that can give the depth of real life – thankfully – so far. Our real life experiences are what will build the skills for value added jobs going forward. Already the persons who can build emotional connect and garner large communities are considered valuable, since, now, not all possess these abilities.

It is not easy, it is indeed exhausting to be pulling up the youth to engage in things that may not feel valuable to them at all. It is easier if one starts younger, but this work is definitely worth it. There is enough evidence to show that excessive engagement with the virtual world leads to attention deficits, to anxiety disorders, and to a certain disconnect from the real world that manifests itself in various conditions. There are countries with de addiction centres for teenagers with digital addictions, and indeed for children and adults alike, a regular digital detox is essential. Just stay away from your phone when on holiday, or any other week or fortnight you choose. It is very hard at first, but it gets easier – and then brings a sense of perspective on who is the tool and who is the master in the human-device relationship.

For relationship it is. I have seen young teens who are happier chatting with Alexa, than with their own visiting cousins. It is so much easier to have a helpful, supportive, informative box with a reassuring voice to engage with than with the sticky complexity of real life responses. This is absolutely adorable for about two minutes, and then one realises the dangers of having a machine as one’s best friend – the machine is going to reduce your capacities to deal with the real world. The real world is not designed to assist you, the machine is. And in getting used to the assisted living way of life, the machine makes you dependent.

So, is there a way to reduce or remove this dependance other than cut back on time? Yes there is – and I cannot claim credit for this insight. I was speaking at a conference and the professor speaking before me was one of the founding fathers of digital games – he used to write games in the nineteen sixties and seventies – even before the internet was a thing. Computers, of course had been invented but most of them were in institutions. He had seen the wave of personal computing, connected computing, internet, brick mobiles and now smartphones with apps. And he said one thing that resonated through the ages of technology: If your child is only consuming the content created by others, then know that you and the child are in trouble. But if your child is reverse engineering the machine, is learning the tools of how to build a program, or is writing a new game, then you are doing well as a parent. The trick is to nudge them past consumption into a more creative space – and then we know that the time on the mobile is improving their capacities, not harming them.

For we, as parents, know that we are the redundant past already. These children, they are already leagues ahead of us. We do not know if their connect with their phones is enabling them to evolve into smarter beings, and we do not know that in restricting them, we are restricting the progress of both the children and the world. Could we be the last of the homo sapiens species, and they the first of the homo Digitals, the ones whose brains work on multiple tracks, each supported by the digital device, trained to align, so that they achieve more than we could have dreamt was humanly possible? It may be so, even though digital learning scores do not give us much home – learning scores do not improve dramatically with online learning. But then, we may be testing them in the old world, when the skills they pick up belong to the new world. For now, I would stick to the seven pieces of advice here – and instead of worrying, find ways to enable them to drive the churn, for churn they must.

Oh, a repeat of the seven pieces of advice?

Let them learn the language of the devices around them, so that they do not have accessibility problems with any digital or virtual progress.
Let them learn the lay of the land in the digital space, so that they can navigate their way through successive systems with comfort, if not ease.
Let them learn how to keep themselves safe in digital spaces. The spaces look different from the real world, and yet have similar predators. They need to engage with the space to learn safe behaviours.
Control mobile phone time – this goes without saying. Negotiate limits – and set the limits in line with what science tells you. Science will progress, and this number will change. As of now, for a teenager, four hours a day should be more than enough. A toddler at 20 minutes, a five year old at less than an hour – and these are maxima. (We will find it tough, let’s just do the best we can)
Creative ways to create mobile phone time – find creative ways to create boundary conditions to mobile phone time.
Build real life experiences that are more fun than virtual experiences. Families that start on this early, when the kids are infants, find it easier.
Finally- Don’t be satisfied if your child is a consumer on the mobile phone. Find ways to create, produce and share value using the mobile phone.

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