(File photo) Jamie Drury, 12, plays a game at a launch. Picture: AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson

Cape Town - Recently a former colleague and Facebook friend asked for advice: should her late-primary school son have a cellphone?

He was imploring her for one, she said, and was she the only parent who was saying no?

Responses varied. Some said their children had phones (but not smartphones) for keeping in contact. Others said they too had not given phones to their children, while others had only recently done that - for a 13th birthday for instance.

Hovering over all of it was a sense of worry and anxiety, a "not knowing what to do", the conflict between parental opinion and pre-teen desires to be like their friends running as a thread throughout.

The actress Kate Winslet has no such uncertainties. She was quoted in the Daily Mail this week as saying that she has banned her children from using social media.

She described going out for dinner and witnessing “children... on their devices, not looking up or even talking, not even saying hello, not even saying thank you... They go into a world and the parents let them do it.”

Winslet, who has three children, daughter Mia (15) and sons, Joe, 11, and Bear, 23 months, said she makes it clear to her eldest children that access to the internet is limited. Referring to her eldest son, she said: “He’ll have to go on my iPhone to do it and he’ll know he only has ten minutes.”

So, there you have it. All will be well if you keep it all under your own control.

I'm not one for criticising the parenting choices of other people, but I do think Winslet is wrong here.

When I was growing up, there was no television, let alone any Internet. Reading was about all there was, and Winslet probably hankers for those golden days.

But remember that literature for children consisted mainly of Enid Blyton and the Hardy Boys. Not in our house though: we were reading all those books but we were also reading many, many comics: Superman, Batman, Archie. Even Sister Louise in the photo comic books (remember them?), was grist to our mill. My mother's view was that as long as we were reading, it didn't matter what the subject matter was. In other words, she let us have freedom and control over our reading practice.

That freedom led me to a life long love for science fiction and a husband who shares that passion.

My mother could not have predicted that - but there is much in parenting that cannot be predicted.

One thing that is certain though is that the Internet and social media are so pervasive that there is no way any of us can keep it from affecting our children's lives. And if we try to wall them away from it, all we are doing is depriving them of the chance to learn how to deal with it. If we restrict our children to small, controlled pockets of the wide range of media available to them we are cutting them off from a glorious array of riches, and from the tools they will need to navigate the world they will enter as adults.

I was in a minority in that Facebook conversation: My son has had a hand-down phone for several years, owns a tablet and has his own refurbished desktop computer and an Xbox. He's been playing computer games since before he went to school. And vegging in front of the television naturally.

His freedom has boundaries, however, and to be fair to Winslet, she went on to talk about much the same boundaries as we have.

Urging parents to take back control, she said: “Take the device out of their hand. Don’t let them sleep with it. Play Monopoly. These things are not rocket science.” She added: “When they want to go up to their room for an hour... know what they’re doing.”

In our house, until recently there were limits on screentime (and I am thinking of reinstating them); my son uses his computer in the lounge where we can see him; age restrictions on games are discussed and negotiated; signing up for accounts is done under my supervision. He understands completely that there are dangers out there on the Internet and that our allowing him access with no parental control software is based on mutual trust: our faith that he will proceed with sense and caution and ask for help when he needs it, and his trust that we will be available and thoughtful and engaged.

For my part, I ask about the games he is playing, I acquaint myself with the YouTube channels he uses, I keep abreast of sites and developments and memes. I talk to him about it all the time. And guess what: he talks back.

There are times when I am not sure I am doing the right thing - as is the way of the parent. But it it was good enough for my mother, it is good enough for me.

IOL @reneemoodie

 

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