My first thought on hearing Facebook is introducing a Messenger for Kids aged six to 12 was, “Zuckerberg, love, Facebook is for old people. The kids are on Snapchat. Haven’t you heard?”
And then I thought: hold on, Messenger for six-year-olds? What kind of a turd of a Christmas gift is that for parents already in paroxysms over the dominance of tech in our kids’ lives? Why not go the whole hog and do Baby Messenger for six- to 12-month-olds?
Facebook insists that this is not a cynical ploy to hook smaller and smaller children but a way of “protecting” our kids by offering a product that can be controlled by parents through their own Facebook account, if indeed they are ancient enough to have one (and if not, perhaps an incentive to sign up?). “Oh, thank you, Facebook,” I imagine they want us to chorus, “thank you all-powerful tech giant who controls so much of our lives already.” Here, take our newborns to sate your thirst for ever-younger audiences.
Actually, the hard reality for most parents is crystallised in the post-school hours. It’s then that the real battle for our children’s minds takes place. We fight through control of these devices with their crack-like apps — and yes, that can quickly descend into ungainly floor-wrestling for the damn things. There have been nights when, passing my sitting room window, the neighbours may have seen me chasing my son in multiple laps across the sofas trying to get the keyboard back for the iMac.
Holidays are ruined. They’d rather sit under the gills of an air-conditioning unit, faces silver-blue in screen light than play in the golden sunshine. Elsewhere, there’s the constant need to find wi-fi to score their daily Snapchat “streaks”.
Once I tried banning tech completely. I plunged my children into a week of wilderness-living as part of a digital detox experiment. The withdrawal symptoms were epic: denial, pleading, cajoling, Exorcist-like rages, physical convulsions and even attempts to break out of our inaccessible hideaway, like veterans of Stalag Luft III, just to get their crazed, jangling hands on a gadgets that would give them that hit.
Certainly I didn’t need Dr Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, to point out that these apps are like “electronic cocaine”. They are highly addictive. And yet, at the other end of the spectrum, the tech lobby pumps out press releases claiming hours on screens are actually good for children’s brains.
Evidence is growing of the impact of prolonged use of social media on our teenage daughters. Recent research in the US, after analysis of questionnaires of more than half a million teens, showed that nearly half who used screens for more than five hours a day regularly had suicidal thoughts and long periods of sadness or depression.
It’s amazing when apparently guileless Silicon Valley tech billionaires rhapsodise about how their children live tech-free. They extol the virtues of the marvellous Waldorf Steiner School of the Peninsula in California, where employees from the tech giants send their kids to do woodcutting or quilt-sewing or whatever blissfully-free-of-the-noose-of-screen-dependency activity their children engage in. They don’t want their children to become social media addicts — so could they stop trying to make junkies of ours?
Why Zelda is my person of the year
My friend Zelda Perkins is one of Time magazine’s Persons of The Year: The Silence Breakers — those who spoke out about sexual harassment and “provided an umbrella of solidarity for millions of people to come forward”. It sparked the #MeToo movement.
Zelda, pictured, went public to say that when she was Harvey Weinstein’s assistant in the Nineties he would sit naked during meetings with her, ask to shower with her, leave for her to pick up his filthy underpants. It was his behaviour to other women that made her finally snap (and I saw with my own eyes in Cannes this diminutive powerhouse stand up to him).
She was shoehorned into a non-disclosure agreement but made three stipulations among others: Weinstein must go to therapy; employees must be protected from him; he must be fired if he sought another settlement within three years of her departure.
We’d tried many times over the last 15 years to break this story in the UK. Mostly we were treated with a grimace of “Ooooh, I don’t know how you’re going to get that past the lawyers”. Ah yes, the lawyers: Zelda reserves a special wrath for them, and for the entire apparatus that allowed Weinstein to continue to molest with impunity.
* I know three men who used to watch porn at their desks in the office. One spent whole afternoons gripped by the sight of gymnastic Eastern European women showcasing their sexual stunts, and even cancelled meetings because he couldn’t tear himself away. Another was so triggered by images of “lesbians” on his phone that he’d spend the day rushing back and forth from the loos (perhaps his colleagues thought he had IBS). The third we could hear.
All ended up in treatment for sex addiction. Sex addiction is not a crime, nor is it the same as sexual harassment. Setting aside the issue of wasting public money, watching porn at work — whether it be in a parliamentary office or elsewhere — can be symptomatic of high-risk behaviour around sex. Which leads me to wonder whether the person consuming all that alleged computer porn in Damian Green’s office was making a cry for help.