Should children write thank you letters this Christmas? It’ll limit their screen time, if nothing else
With experts warning too much screen time stunts children’s development, old-fashioned thank you letters might help pull them away from devices for a few minutes. But texting ‘thnx 4 ur pres gran, its gr8’ might not be all bad
A study published by the University of Hong Kong warns that parents should limit their children’s screen time for better developmental and mental health.
Of the children observed, 75 per cent spent more than two hours a day looking at screens. That is more than three times as much as their American counterparts and almost twice as much as children in China.
One, possibly knee-jerk, reaction to this would be to unplug the devices and thrust paper and crayons in your children’s direction, urging them towards oral communication and books, not software. Given the festive season, you could perhaps even insist on them writing “Thank You” letters.
When I was small, the single shadow that loomed over Christmas was the inevitable tedium of writing thank you letters; my mother was a stickler for manners. Two or three days post-festivities, in the flat hiatus between the old year and the new, my siblings and I would be obliged to sit at the dining table, chewing our pencils and wondering what to say beyond: “Dear Granny, thank you for the book. I love it”. It seemed rude not to say more.
I have inherited my mother’s habit of pressing the children to acknowledge a gift, but they are not burdened in the same way I was. A brief text message will suffice, a polite acknowledgement: “thnx 4 ur pres gran, its gr8”.
Sometimes my mother absorbs the essentials of a text message, but sometimes she is left bemused: “I haven’t a clue what she’s on about,” she will say of a text message received from my daughter.
The daughter in question tells me that “the fear that teens will soon be illiterate with gigantic, mutant thumbs due to their excessive use of mobile phones is demeaning. Just because I am a teen, it does not mean I am unable to switch between text-speak and formal essay writing. It’s as easy as switching between chatting to your friends and speaking to an elderly relation.” Your mother included, presumably.
My anxiety is born of an education that was devoid of technology. If you needed to do research for a history essay you pulled a volume of the encyclopaedia from the shelf, blew the dust from its cover and dived in, your finger trailing lines of type.
My son punches “Stalin, man or monster?” into Google and hey presto: pages of links appear on the screen and he can quickly identify what needs investigating in depth.
But my concern that technology may compromise the written word is dated. As Scarlett Mattoli, a psychotherapist at Hong Kong’s Psynamo mental health centre observes: “The internet is very convenient and probably everything known to man has been documented somewhere. It is the world we live in today and is unlikely to be removed from our lives in the foreseeable future. Many schools now have all educational materials online and encourage a paperless environment.”
My children’s brave new world is exactly that: new. They are a product of their time. We communicate in myriad ways today – emails and instant messaging, for example – and the technology we employ to communicate, such as mobile phones and laptops, is constantly evolving. Different channels of communication have inevitably led to the emergence of new communicative styles including text abbreviations and acronyms.
However, Mattoli does warn that a balance is imperative. “The one thing that we might see as a result of early, extensive and extended use of ‘screens’ is the dulling of the development of senses, the reduction in the ability to focus for long periods of time, and the lowering of the threshold of intolerance to change as well as a lessening of thinking skills,” she says.
Despite that, there is no evidence the use of text-speak is harming literacy development in children. In fact the associations are positive; many of the popular abbreviations used by children, for example, are phonetic in nature, helping their awareness of the sounds that make up spoken words.
“Young children, because of user-friendly touch-screen technology, can use the screen to help with learning phonemic awareness and phonics,” says Diane Barone, professor of literacy studies at the University of Nevada.
And the range of media through which children access the written word is vast now; many children who might have been overwhelmed when faced with the heft of a book are not remotely intimidated by the single open page on a tablet.
If we insist our children relinquish some screen time, will we be holding them up in a world that is increasingly screen-dependent? All I do know is that for now it’s we, the older generation, that need to catch up: our children, who have grown up with technology, are usually roped in to iron out our electronic glitches, have to teach us what a double tap on an iPad means, and have to translate textisms for us.
“LOL is laugh out loud, not lots of love, as it was in your day, mother,” my daughter reminds me. And WTF is not, as one mother reacted to her horrified daughter’s excellent test result, Well That’s Fantastic.