‘Mother Courage, you are so brave!” “I wish I had your strength of character.” “Have you broken the news to the kids?”
Before you ask, I am not suffering from a terminal affliction, nor have I signed up to make the burritos for an international peacekeeping force. I have (deep intake of breath) booked a lovely cottage on the Isle of Skye for our summer holiday... that has no WiFi and no mobile phone coverage.
You heard. No Snapchatting. Just the chatting and (I’m under no illusions) the snapping. No Insta-hours frittered away on screens. My children will have the opportunity to read an actual book, rather than Facebook; no, darling, you actually turn the page.
If you insist on swiping it, you’ll keep tearing the pa... right, let’s go through it again...
Now, you can see why they’re calling me Mother Courage in the organic coffee shops of north London, and whispering in reverential tones about Mama’s badass digital detox. It’s a risk, I know, but worth it if I can reel my family back in and return them all to their proverbial factory settings. Albeit forcibly. Because nobody’s going to relinquish their gadgets voluntarily, are they?
We’re all so economically and emotionally dependent on technology that in this, as in so many respects, Einstein was a visionary when he said: “I fear the day technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” That’s why I applaud Stroud High School in Gloucestershire for announcing that FitBits, smartwatches and mobile phones are to be banned next term.
Frankly, I wish all schools would do the same. The girls’ academy have taken this measure on the grounds that trendy health monitors have the opposite effect - sparking an obsession with burning calories which leads students to skip lunch if they haven’t clocked up enough steps.
Mobile phones - which are essentially portals to social media, as the only time teenagers ever make phone calls is to summon dad’s taxi - place young girls under pressure to pretend their lives are perfect, one hilarious or glamorous or shiny, happy “selfie” at a time.
Imagine it. Just at the point of adolescence when your daughter so desperately wants to belong, Big Brother (or even worse, Big Sister) is watching everything she posts online; judging her pictures, or lack of them, making snide remarks about her cheap trainers, her boring bedroom, her thighs. The internet may have revolutionised our interactions, but it is also a censorship-free medium where casual cruelties are commonplace.
In her new book, the facetiously-titled Can I Speak to Someone in Charge?, Jeremy Clarkson’s daughter Emily, now aged 23, reveals how she was trolled in her late teens because of her appearance and who her father was. By no means a shrinking violet now, she recalls being described as “bloated”, a “lump of lard” and “another brainless vapid celebrity spawn spending Daddy’s money”. She writes: “I should have been allowed to carry my puppy fat in peace, and my grown-up fat for that matter, without the fear that one of you low-lifes was going to try and tear me down.”
The problem (don’t begin to ask me about the solution) is that from an early age, young people feel a weight of expectation to create their own personal brand and gain reassurance in likes and shares from complete strangers. That way can only lie madness and the corrosive effect on a generation’s mental health can be devastating. ChildLine has reported an 88 per cent increase in callers seeking help for online abuse.
Boys report aggression on gaming sites, where other players isolate them, turn on them and repeatedly tell them to kill themselves. Girls log on to social networking sites to find threatening and insulting messages from bullies they know and bullies they don’t. Sometimes, the pain becomes unbearable.
In May of this year, Sayat.me, an app that allows children to hurl abuse at one another, was taken offline after it was blamed for the suicide of 15-year-old George Hessay from Goole, East Yorkshire. Ostensibly designed for businessmen and women seeking unmediated feedback from colleagues and clients, it became hugely popular among teenagers. They may initially choose to take part... but they can’t choose to leave. In cyberspace, there’s nowhere to hide, and a craze can easily tip over into mania.
Consider the obscene Blue Whale challenge, which has been linked to the deaths of 130 teenagers in Russia. Players are given a “master” who controls them for 50 days, giving them a task to complete - watching horror movies all day, depriving themselves of sleep, cutting the image of a blue whale into their skin with a blade. Positive feedback from the master on completion of a task triggers a form of Stockholm syndrome, so that when, on day 50, comes the instruction to “win” the challenge by killing themselves, what to do? Scores of girls have done just that.
It sounds far-fetched, dystopian, something that couldn’t happen here, and yet police in Britain have been warning schools to look out for signs. And all this is happening away from our adult gaze. This is partly because young people jealously guard their privacy, even when that privacy is a source of misery and shame and despair, and partly because grown-ups are too distracted.
A survey by a digital marketing firm has found the average Briton with a smartphone uses it 221 times a day - on emails, texts and other social media. Typically, we first click on to our phones at 7.31am, and then keep tapping away - on and off - until 11.21pm. I reckon we spend more than three hours every day in a parallel universe. I’d like those hours back, please; to talk or play Pictionary, go rockpooling or hillwalking. Just being rather than doing would be a great start. Hence my family’s unplugged fortnight.
Where will my husband be without his 24-hour newsfeed and an Amazon Wish List that makes David Davis’s Brexit demands look paltry by comparison? How will the eight-year-old cope without FaceTime and JoJo Siwa’s execrable YouTube channel? Or the 15-year-old without Her Entire Life? We shall soon find out.