London - Dummy fixed firmly in mouth, staring down at the iPad before him, it’s a portrait of a little boy that says so much about modern childhood.
Here is Kai Rooney, still not weaned off a pacifier at the age of three — yet sophisticated enough to navigate around a tablet computer so powerful he has the world in his chubby hands.
As a mother I have to say there is something very familiar about the look of concentration on Kai’s face as he studies the device on holiday with his mother, footballer’s wife Coleen Rooney Only a few days ago I dubbed my family’s festive season “the iPad Christmas” — because I’d never seen my two children and their cousins so immersed in such technology.
These tablets and their various imitators topped the Christmas list of every child I know. The dizzying array of games and graphics rolled into one means there is no toy on the market to beat them. And most kids I know, including my daughters Lily, 11, and Clio, seven, got what they wanted. But it also changed our Christmas.
My memories of this time of year used to be chatter and noise, high-spirited board games and loud disputes over sharing toys. This Boxing Day, all the children, from three to 16, were eerily quiet, eyes down to whatever mini-computer Santa had brought them.
Yes, there was peace and harmony. But only because each child was silently and separately engaged. No cross words were exchanged because no one needed to share their gadgets or talk.
In one armchair, Lily looked for a screensaver for her new iPhone, a gift from her grandma. On the floor, Clio compiled a contacts list on her new iPod Touch, also a present from Granny.
On the sofa two teenage cousins wore headphones plugged into their laptops to watch new DVD box sets, while a three-year-old nephew tried out games on his new tablet by the tree. It may have looked like festive togetherness but I felt only dismay.
However, I couldn’t talk — I was viewing it all from behind my MacBook Pro, on which I was assembling a family photo album.
It occurred to me that as a family we were not together. We were simply in the same room at the same time. And the uncomfortable truth was that as a busy mother trying to pick up the pieces after Christmas, I couldn’t deny I was enjoying the quiet the electronic babysitters were giving me.
Go to any park, supermarket or cafe and you’ll see toddlers Kai’s age and younger engaged with their parents’ gadgets with the same entranced attention.
While Coleen is no doubt a loving, attentive mother, she probably has, like many parents, found the devices are fantastic distraction tools. By the time children are two, six out of ten are given mobile gadgets to play with. Of their mothers, one in ten admits leaving them to play with them for up to two hours.
You only have to scroll through YouTube to see tiny tykes who can’t talk in sentences but can effortlessly switch between apps.
There are toddlers baffled at why they can’t slide the images on a TV screen or why the pages of a magazine don’t move if you swipe them.
Of course, as adults we are keen to justify our behaviour by downloading every learning app going to persuade ourselves our children are being educated. But isn’t the essential truth that we are just engaging in “anything-for-a-quiet-life” parenting?
Anything as time-consuming as calming our children with a rattle, a cuddle or a nursery rhyme is too much like hard work. Why bother when you can head off a tantrum with the digital version of a lollipop?
But in pacifying our children with this electronic valium, we are forgetting the other life skills they need to learn. What about teaching them how to enjoy the world around them, make their own entertainment and master their emotions?
In a recent survey, it was found 21 percent of four and five-year-olds can find their way around a smartphone but only 14 percent can tie their shoe laces. And how can they not be fascinated by such devices when they see their parents constantly using them? When my first child was born in 2001, I used to send two or three texts a day. Now I don’t go to the loo without my BlackBerry. Like a 40-a-day smoker, I have to fight the urge to check my texts even at school plays.
I know of women who tweeted about their contractions from the labour ward and one family where the toddler tried to flush his dad’s BlackBerry down the loo so he didn’t have to compete for his attention.
Emergency doctors believe the rise in children’s accidents — up a third in five years according to the NHS — is being driven by parents watching their phone instead of their children.
Noel Janis-Norton, author of bestselling series of books Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, says: “Parents were already not getting enough face-to-face time with their children before. Now with smartphones, they have even less. Everyone misses out.
“They may convince themselves these devices are learning tools, but children have always managed to learn their ABCs. What they need are good, adult role models and a strong adult-child relationship.”
Of course, computers also bring benefits. This Christmas my teenage nephew showed us some exquisite artwork he’d designed on his iPad. He spent a happy half-hour showing my girls how it was done.
But having seen how quickly gadgets can ruin the quality of family life within just a day, for me it’s more important than ever to impose some boundaries — not just for my daughters, but for myself, too.
So during family holidays from now on I have vowed there will be a return to traditional board games that the whole family can play together, as well as crafts.
Because ultimately, if we find our gadgets more interesting than our children — and our children learn to find their gadgets more interesting than us — there’s no app in the world that can replace the lost bond. - Daily Mail