Q & A: Dr. Bex Lewis

Do you confuse faith book with Facebook? Does the idea of children being online terrify you? Never fear, as Dr Bex Lewis is on hand with some practical advice for getting to grips with the internet. She spoke to Premier Childrenswork’s Jamie Cutteridge.

 JC: Are kids engaging with the internet at a younger age? Are tablets a big reason for that?

BL: One child specialist says that it’s really taken off because when kids use a keyboard there’s no automatic link between what they type and what happens on screen. But for a tablet, stuff happens right underneath their finger so they can really see what’s happening. I’ve got an app on my iPad that’s a talking cat or a talking giraffe depending on which programme I’m in, and if you stroke it, it purrs, and if you bop it it goes ‘Ow!’ I play that with my nieces and nephews and godchildren, but they get bored really quickly. And I think that’s a healthy attitude to say, ‘Here you go, enjoy this and when you’re done let’s go off and do something else healthy,’ because the internet is as healthy as everything else. You’ve only really got a problem when people spend hours and hours on this stuff, and that’s not necessarily down to the technology; they might have the kind of personality that does that, and your job as a parent is to keep an eye out for that kind of stuff. You wouldn’t chuck your child out in the middle of a shopping centre and then go off and buy yourself a washing up bowl.

JC: Why do you think there’s the perception in the media that the internet is so scary for children?

BL: The job of the media is to look for stuff that is unusual and things that will draw people in. I’m not sure whether to regard it as a badge of honour that the Daily Mail approached me about the book and when I sent them some stuff they never came back to me! They were asking for more information on scare stories about the statistics on the back of the book.

Last year there was the thing about four year-olds all being addicted to iPads. Once you dug into it, it was actually released by a guy who charges thousands of pounds to cure children from addiction. So he’s only seeing the worst cases and he’s got a business proposition to sell. The London School of Economics looked at 25,000 children across Europe in 2010 and discovered that lots of children say that they’re addicted to the internet because it’s seen as a badge of honour. Actually only around ten per cent at the most showed any signs of what they’d describe as addiction, and they were children who had an addictive personality and needed guidance on helping them to be less addicted to anything. 

I think parents should sit by a child and teach them how to use the internet, just as if they were learning to ride a bike or swim

JC: What do you think the problems are with this scaremongering? Does it stop parents from fully engaging with the issue because they are so scared?

BL: Yes, I really think it does. I think they’re terrified. We’re told that children are ‘digital natives’ and so we can’t really understand where they are coming from because it’s a completely new world. But what actually is a digital native? The term first came out about 15 years ago, but still I’m slightly too old to be a digital native. People five or six years younger than me probably grew up with email, but if you go five years younger than that they’ve grown up with something completely different, and younger than that they’ve had Wikipedia for their whole life. Each block of children has grown up with something slightly different so there’s not one homogenous group. Plus, even within  that group, the LSE study says that there’s a significant proportion of children who just couldn’t care less about technology. They don’t all love it, some of them hate it. My nephew goes on Facebook about every three months - he really doesn’t care, and he’s an older teen.

A girl called Martha set up a blog for a school project. She just took a photo of her school dinner every single day and said ‘This is what I get.’ It started picking up interest because it was two bits of beige on a plate! She was only nine years old when that started but because she became famous people began to ask how she used the internet when she was at home. She said: ‘My dad checks all my emails before I use it to make sure there’s nothing nasty. He’s got my password. I’m only allowed on for an hour a day and I get to choose how I spend that hour.’ Underlying it all was that her dad wanted her to have a fun experience. She could do it while she was enjoying it, but if she stopped enjoying it then he wasn’t going to send her round to all the people who wanted to speak to her. I often use the analogy of a brick - you can build a house with it or you can chuck it through a window. Do you want your child to be the kind who chucks things through the window?

The other thing that gets over-hyped is cyber-bullying, even with younger children. Nancy Willard, an academic in the States, is quite worried about the press making so much of it. She says that the impression it’s giving children is that everyone bullies so it’s not a big deal, and if you’re the child on the receiving end then it is just a rite of passage and you have to put up with it. How do you help people understand that cyber-bullying is a bad thing without saying it’s the only thing that goes on online? Are there only bullies and paedophiles online? No, there’s not. The only direct stats I could find about the whole stranger danger thing was in the States: in 2006, out of 300,000 abductions, 12 of them were by strangers.

JC: Which dangers are only relevant to children (as opposed to teenagers)?

BL: With younger children, if you just let them roam freely online [there’s the concern about] what they’re going to come across. That’s why I’m quite an advocate for sitting by them. You know, you could look up ‘Big Ben’ and get some really dodgy stuff coming up! I think parents should sit by a child and teach them how to use the internet, just as if they were learning to ride a bike or swim - you don’t chuck them in and leave them to it.

With younger children I think filters do come into play. They’re pointless once they get to about 13 because you can get around them so easily. But, instead of blacklisting the sites that you don’t like, you can come up with a white-list that you’ve vetted and you’ve asked friends about.

As much as there are fears about addiction, I think younger kids get bored quite quickly. Sometimes I think it’s actually the parents who have to worry more. One of my friends decided they had a problem. They both work in the e-sector and they’ve got all kinds of devices. One time they came in and their two year-old daughter went to get the mum’s phone because she knew her mum loved the phone. So, if she gave mummy the phone, then mummy would want to talk to her. So they realised there was a problem if she associated mummy and the phone. They had a shelf built next to the door and when they come in from work they actively put their phone down next to the door.

There’s anecdotal evidence, that children are turning up at pre-school and they don’t have a very good vocabulary. Lots of people are blaming technology for that, but actually what school guardians and other people are tending to notice is that it’s actually parents being so engrossed in their devices that they’re not talking to their children. 

How do you help people understand that cyber-bullying is a bad thing without saying it’s the only thing that goes on online? 

JC: What are the dangers of removing children from the internet altogether?

BL: I just think you’re putting kids at a disadvantage. It’s part of everyday life. Food is not a dangerous thing, it’s a beautiful thing that has lots of possibilities, but you can misuse it. I think it’s much the same with technology.

People say that the digital is causing people to have short attention spans, but I would say that I’ve had a short attention span my whole life! What the digital has done for me is that it has kind of normalised what I’m like. But people who are not like that will find it more difficult. People are worried that kids will see so many pictures of elephants that they’ll never want to see a real elephant, but actually you tend to find that kids get really excited and they want to go and see the real thing.

It doesn’t mean that I think that everything should be digital. It was my birthday yesterday and someone was surprised that I still get paper birthday cards. These days getting a birthday card is something quite special and it means that someone hasn’t waited until Facebook has told them it’s your birthday before they send you a message!

JC: What advice would you give to parents who have no idea where to start with this issue?

BL: You can make technology fun and something that the family does together, and then you go off and do something else together. I think the more you can make it a normal part of life, the better. It’s a bit like the French attitude to wine: they’ve found that if you give really young children wine on their gums before they’ve even got teeth, it’s not a big deal. It’s just a part of life and they don’t try and abuse it when they’re older. I think it is about having a healthy attitude right from the start. Don’t model anything behaviour-wise that you don’t want your kids to pick up.

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