Danny Bryce, a prominent community youth worker with leading social justice charity Extern, is urging parents to put down the phones this Christmas and be ‘present’.

We’ve all heard people talk about how children today are ‘never off their phones’, but as adults, do we ever stop to look at our own mobile phone usage? How many of us ever think about how our phones may be negatively impacting upon our relationships with the young people in our lives?

Mobile technology has become omnipresent. Everywhere we look, everywhere we go, we see people with phones in their hands. We watch concerts as camera crew through our screens. We celebrate every special moment by getting our phone out to video or photograph it, rather than immersing ourselves in the experience.

Within Extern, we are very aware that when a vulnerable young person is walking into one of our offices for the first time, we need to be present for them. They deserve a friendly hello…a smile…a warm welcome, because they need to know and feel that they matter. Imagine how that child would feel if they walked in to a room and no one acknowledged them because they were looking at their phones?

Yet in our homes, it is all too easy for our young people to become that child for whom no one looks up, all because we are absorbed in the content on our phones or tablets. Let’s ask ourselves a question. In the past week alone, how many times has that lack of acknowledgement happened within our own homes? How many times, for example, has a child had to say “Mummy, mummy, MUMMY!” or “Daddy, daddy, DADDY!” before getting our attention, as we failed to answer them, or answered with a “Hmmm?” or a “Not now.” Without meaning to, we are damaging our relationships with our children.

We are not being present.

In the play park, kids play alone while parents stare at phones. Disconnected. Disengaged. Our young children are having to compete with social media for attention. A beep or jingle sees the phone come out and ‘poof!’ - the parent is no longer present. Gone! Emotionally detached. Focused on their screen. The child is alone, disengaged, less important than the text or WhatsApp message.

Today, many homes are full of devices. That means many children, in the absence of interaction and attention, are becoming engrossed in virtual worlds – a place where at least they are acknowledged. This is fraught with danger as parents are often oblivious to the risks on these platforms. We have to ask ourselves where is this going to lead?

In restaurants it can often feel like society has gone back in time, dictating that children must be seen and not heard again, so they are offered a phone or tablet, the ‘electronic babysitter’, to “keep them quiet”.

Safety concerns for children have increased due to the rise in screen gazing. In a recent article in the Independent, Dr Chodarhi, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "Accidents often happen when we're distracted and mobile phones are increasingly to blame - whether it's a teenager stepping out into traffic while instant messaging, a baby grabbing at a hot drink, or a baby biting into a liquitab while their parent is replying to a text. It only takes a split second for an accident to happen, so I urge parents and young people to adapt their behaviour."

So, this Christmas, I urge all parents to be ‘present’ by doing three things;

  • Turn off our technology for planned periods each day and be present with our children. Build that rapport, create those memories, share those experiences, engage, connect, collaborate and converse.
  • Impose a limit on our own screen time and reduce our usage. Particularly while children are in our company.
  • Plan engaging interactive activities with our children and follow them through. Outings, board games, indoor and outdoor activities.

If we are lucky enough, Christmas provides us with a chance to join with family. We need to use it wisely as no one gets a second chance at a childhood, and memories cannot be bought. Let’s seize the moment.

Happy Christmas!

For further information about Extern’s services for children and young people, or to donate and support the charity’s work, please visit www.extern.org or @extern1978 on Twitter & Facebook.