Crossing roads. Falling off climbing frames. Avoiding perverts. Yes, dangers to today’s children are myriad and to permanently worry is a parent’s natural state. However, three pieces of hell-in-a-handcart news have perturbed the father in me this week.
Last weekend, a survey found that the back-to-school ritual of buying a new pencil case and stationery to fill it (smelly rubbers! Set squares which will never be used! Rulers that aren’t as shatterproof as they claim!) is dying out. It’s all being superseded by the ubiquitous iPads. More schoolchildren will be starting term with a new tablet than with a new pencil case. Messrs WH Smith, John Menzies and Ryman must be spinning in their Basildon Bond-lined graves.
On Tuesday came the revelation that Lego is shedding 1,400 staff because its decade long-run of sales growth has come to an end. Sales of dimpled building bricks have toppled like a toddler’s poorly constructed tower. The downturn is the biggest blow to the Danish business since it came close to bankruptcy 15 years ago.
And on Wednesday, just to rub salt into my already painful parental wounds, a poll of headteachers produced the scary fact that cases of four-year-olds arriving at primary school unable to speak properly are on the rise. The “pressures of modern family life” mean parents no longer have time to speak to their children, instead leaving pre-schoolers to occupy themselves with devices such as iPads.
It adds up to a nightmarish vision of a dystopian future where our children are mute, illiterate zombies, permanently plugged into iPads (come to think of it, perhaps this is the present, not the future) while pens, paper and physical toys have become relics of a bygone age.
Knee-jerk headlines aside, though, how much cause for parental concern is it all really?
First, let’s take stationery sales. Is it true that today's tech-savvy schoolchildren will never know the pleasures of a spanking new pencil case filled with pristine equipment? The ChannelMum.com survey of 1,000 parents found that 55 per cent of schoolchildren will be starting the new term with a fresh tablet, compared to only 46 per cent with a new pencil case.
Yet that’s partly because most primary pupils don’t take their own stationery into school any more. It’s already waiting in the classroom for them, with pots of pens, pencils and crayons in the middle of each desk. Besides, if my own children are anything to go on, there are bulging boxes and unopenable drawers full of stationery back at home.
Today’s children are taking the tablets and overdosingMichael Hogal
Chains like Paperchase, Tiger and Smiggle are thriving, as popular now as Woolies, Menzies, Smiths and Ryman were in our day. Kids’ party bags are still full of novelty notepads, sticky Post-its , rubbers and sharpeners. Stationery remains part of the childhood experience – they just don’t carry it to school in a pencil case so much anymore.
Sure, technology is gradually edging out ye olde pen-and-paper but that’s progress for you. I reassure myself by looking at book sales. Tablets and Kindles were supposed to have killed off traditional papery publishing but after initial alarm bells rang, book sales went back up. Children’s books and YA novels are now so buoyant, they’re propping up the rest of the publishing industry and a beacon of hope for its future.
Next, the Lego lay-offs. These aren’t quite as dramatic as they sound, as much due to the toy company over-reaching itself in recent years as the result of a sales slump. However, I truly hope Lego retains its place as the world’s top-selling toy because it’s brilliant.
The deceptively simple Danish bricks are a timeless toy classic. Elaborate, expensive sets might often be aimed at AFoLs (Adult Fans of Lego) as much as children, but littl’uns still adore building their own creations from a bunch of bricks, knocking them over and building again. Parents shouldn’t be put off by the over-priced branded tie-ins. Instead, hit eBay or your local car boot, where you can pick up boxfuls for peanuts.
Yes, the patronisingly feminine Lego Friends range might have been a mis-step – such a gender split felt retrograde, reinforcing stereotypes with its pink boxes and explicitly girly themes – but the Ninjago, Harry Potter and Star Wars stuff is superb. Lego stores are a slick shopping experience, full of smiley staff and clever gimmicks that suck in youngsters aged four to 15. Lego books, comics, TV shows and movies are surprisingly entertaining and genuinely funny, even for a long-suffering adults.
The humble plastic brick is so much more than a toy or something for parents to painfully step on. It’s a catalyst for creative expression, a tool to teach physical dexterity and problem-solving. To see imagination in action, sit down en famille to watch the Lego Masters contest on Channel 4 each Thursday. The clever, colourful creations will take your breath away and make your little darlings’ eyes pop. Yes, if Lego dies out, we can basically kiss goodbye to civilisation and surrender to our new cockroach overlords.
The most worrying news, though, is that four-year-olds are starting school with inadequate speech and communication skills. Time-poor parents, especially over the interminable summer holidays, are relying too much on the “iPad babysitter”. Today’s children are taking the tablets and overdosing.
We’ve all heard pearl-cutching horror stories about a baby's first word being not "Mum" nor "Dad" but “iPad”. We’ve seen YouTube videos of toddlers swiping their thwarted fingers across the pages of books or magazines, trying to unlock them, or watched those hidden camera experiments where children are so engrossed in their iPads, they don’t notice their parents being replaced by strangers.
We’ve looked aghast at attachments to fix iPads to prams or “apptivity seats” into which tablets are slotted to keep babies entertained. We might even have eye-rolled at young house guests demanding “What’s your wifi password?” before they’ve even said hello.
Because technology moves so fast and children embrace it so quickly, it’s difficult for parents to control. We often don’t know what our pint-sized iPad addicts have been watching, playing or downloading. Parental filters and locks aren’t infallible – and it’s not just sexual imagery or violent video games that pose danger. There’s also children’s ability to put what they watch in context. “Funny” fictional brattishness or cartoonish violence become sheer bad behaviour in the real world. Prank videos are popular but, when copied in the playground, can tip into bullying.
These magical devices are so absorbing, the intensity of children's engagement with them can appear cultish. For some “techno-tots”, iPads have become the 21st century equivalent of a comfort blanket. They get used as a pacifier for tantrum-ing toddlers.
Recent research found that 10 per cent of under-fours are put to bed with a tablet to play with as they fall asleep. What happened to warm milk and a just-boring-enough bedtime story? Even Apple boss Steve Jobs didn't let his own children have iPads because he recognised just how addictive they were.
Sure, tablet computers might encourage “technological intelligence” but they also affect development. They make children impatient, demanding to download things, power up or recharge straightaway. The idea that you can spend time learning, practising and perfecting a skill could fall out of fashion.
It’s tricky to express concern about kids’ screen time without sounding like a “better in my day” reactionary, judgemental snob or insufferable hypocrite. After all, many parents have their noses permanently in their smartphones too. It’s their fault, not the child’s, that they’re not talking to each other.
Of course, televisions and tablets can buy harassed parents precious time. “TV time” is often the hour (or two… OK, three) when a parent can get their own work or chores done. If an iPad arrives at a Sunday pub lunch, we’re secretly pleased to see it. As the children gather around transfixed, it means the grown-ups can enjoy an interrupted chat for once.
Like most things in life, it’s a matter of balance. Whether it’s Lego, Meccano, Playmobil, Stickle Bricks, Fuzzy Felts, train sets, toy cars or dolls, all encourage what’s termed “real play” which fosters creativity, initiative and problem-solving skills.
Limiting screen time in favour of physical toys or outdoor activities (running, climbing, role-play, making dens and making friends) is vital for building social skills, emotional resilience, empathy, adaptability and the foundation for learning - not to mention healthy bodies and brains.
So let’s not classify child’s play as either wholesome toys or harmful screens. See it as a beneficial mix of both. Persuade them to put down the iPad and pick up an actual pad. Swap clicks for bricks. Be less appy, more happy. Stop taking the tablets - or at least decrease the dose.