Lost in cyberspace: How long do children spend online?

As sales of laptops and smartphones rise, we asked six 12-year-olds how much time they spend in front of a screen.

Mimi Scholes is the daughter of Adam, a creative director at the advertising agency JWT.

Mimi’s mother, Rachael, died of cancer in January 2012. Mimi has a younger sister, Alberta, and lives in London.

Mimi loves to shop. She spends time after she has been shopping styling herself in different outfits and taking pictures and video clips, which she uploads to her Facebook page, Instagram account and Keek, another social networking service that ‘is like Instagram for videos. But you can only do 36-second videos, so when I go shopping and “Keek” what I’ve bought that day, I have to do it in parts: part one, part two…’

Like five of the six children interviewed for this article Mimi is on Facebook even though the minimum age to join the site is 13. Her father echoes the feelings of many other parents of tweenagers. ‘A lot of Mimi’s friends already had a Facebook account when Mimi asked if she could sign up. She’s very sociable and it would have been unfair to say no.’

Mimi says she spends ‘a lot’ of time on her father’s old Apple MacBook. ‘She was using mine so much that I had to borrow one from work,’ Adam says. ‘I could sit there and spend two hours on it,’ Mimi adds. ‘My dad doesn’t like it when I spend ages. He’ll say, “Oh, Mimi, come and do something else.” He’s not too strict. I’m not that bad really.’ She says she spends an ‘average’ amount of time watching television. ‘When I come back from school I put the TV on for maybe an hour.’

Mimi has a BlackBerry. ‘Every single one of my friends has a BlackBerry.’ She would like an iPhone, but for now ‘I steal my dad’s. I have downloaded lots of Justin Bieber apps, like one where you can dress him up and choose little outfits for him.’Mimi’s most searched terms on Google are ‘Justin Bieber’ and ‘Facebook’. ‘Even if I don’t want to go on Facebook I type in Facebook and I’m like, “Oops, I typed in Facebook.” But [Facebook] is getting a bit boring. I prefer Keek.’

Mimi is not interested in games. ‘We had a Wii and we never used it,’ she says. ‘Boys all play Call of Duty. Whenever I go to my friend’s house her brother, who is 13, is playing it. I have never seen him off it. TV and computers are not too addictive, but things like [Call of Duty] can rot your brain.’

Lara Bulloch is the daughter of Katharina, a publisher, and Jamie, a literary translator.

She has two younger sisters, Evie and Connie. She lives in London.

‘I use the computer quite a lot, but only really for homework. I don’t think I spend too much time in front of screens at all,’ Lara says. She thinks her screen time is ‘about average’ for children of her age – between an hour and an hour and a half a day – and probably less than her friends.

Lara is not on Facebook, which is unusual for someone her age (a New York University study in 2011 estimated that 55 per cent of 12 year olds were registered on Facebook, while a survey of children in Britain put the figure at 34 per cent. Facebook has, for some time, been considering lowering the age limit). Lara says, ‘lots of my friends have lied about their age and got Facebook but I don’t want to do that. I don’t like the idea of pretending I’m 21 with two kids – I’d feel a bit bad.’

There are no set rules regarding screen time in Lara’s house, but she will be told to turn off a device if her parents feel she has been on it for too long. ‘That used to happen more, especially with the TV,’ Lara says. ‘I was watching it every Saturday morning. Dad used to come in and turn it off and take the plug out.’ Currently she watches the television for an hour or two each week, most often on a Friday after school. ‘It’s quite relaxing watching TV on Friday,’ she says. ‘But the thing with TV is you think you’re only going to watch one programme but you end up watching the one after and the one after that.’

The family has a communal computer that the girls can use to do research for homework, and an iPad, which Lara admits to fighting over ‘just a bit’ with her sisters. ‘On the iPad I like things like Temple Run and Doodle Jump,’ Lara says.

Katharina admitted she has a ‘chuck them outside’ attitude towards entertaining children, which her husband makes fun of. ‘Jamie is much more likely to sign them up for a game or an app on the iPad,’ she says. ‘He has his own games,’ Lara adds. ‘There’s one called Molehill Empire. It’s a bit embarrassing. You get a garden and plant all these plants then try to make them grow. It’s not a cool game.’

Joel Nuki is the son of Helen, a market research analyst, and Paul, an editor.

He has two older brothers, Otto and Oscar, and a younger sister, Litzi. He lives in London.

Joel will admit that sometimes he is so engrossed in playing a game on his 15-year-old brother, Otto’s, PlayStation 3 that he may not hear his mother calling from downstairs. ‘Sometimes I ignore her,’ he says. ‘Occasionally’ he doesn’t even hear her. ‘I probably spend too much time in front of the PS3.’ So what does he consider too much time? ‘More than a few hours a day.’

His mother, Helen, says, ‘They play these hideous killing things like Call of Duty, and skateboarding games.’ Call of Duty is rated 18, but like many parents with older boys (Oscar is 18) it would be hard for Helen to stop her younger sons’ playing the game. ‘Well it wasn’t me who bought it. I can’t remember how we got it,’ Joel says. ‘But the game we play most is probably FIFA. I haven’t been on Call of Duty for a while actually.’

Helen tries to monitor Joel’s access to PS3 and the other screens in the house, but once he has done his homework he ‘tends to move from one electronic thing to the next’. She says she would be more concerned if playing computer games was her son’s only hobby, ‘but Joel spends a lot of time out with his friends socialising, playing football for a local club and at kickbox training once a week.’

There are no rules regarding when he can use his BlackBerry (he also has his own iPod Touch, Nintendo DS and a laptop), enabling him to be connected to the internet and to his friends 24 hours a day. He mostly uses it for messaging his friends and he uses his laptop or the family computer to go online. He spends approximately half an hour a day on Facebook and visits YouTube ‘a lot’ to look at funny clips. He is a fan of the YouTube channel ‘Smosh’, which streams comic skits from two 25-year-old Americans every Friday. ‘They act out different scenarios that are very, very funny,’ he says.

In fact there are very few formal rules about screen time in their household. ‘Most parents try to impose strict rules around screens when their children are younger but when they reach year seven it becomes very hard,’ Helen says. Nevertheless Joel is not allowed to play the PS3 or go on the computer, which is stationed in the living room, before going to school or before dinner when he comes home. Only if he is caught playing on Otto’s PlayStation very late on a school night is there a punishment. ‘We’ll get the controllers taken away for one day,’ Joel says. Does he think that is a fair price to pay? ‘Yes.’ He is not sure but he does not think the rules in his house differ much from those of his peers.

Isaac Hannigan is the son of Mary, a teacher, and Glenn, who is a fireman.

He has an older brother, Ted. He lives in Crosby.

Isaac is a keen gamer. In his house there is an Xbox in the living room and a PlayStation 3 in his bedroom. But there are strict rules: he can play them for one hour on a weekday and three hours on a Saturday or Sunday. He plays Call of Duty, Halo and FIFA, often with his brother, Ted, 15, and sometimes with his father.

Mary says ‘there are some 18 and 15 certificate games we wouldn’t buy them.’ She adds that it is Glenn, who ‘in his day was a bit of a gamer’, who usually makes the decision. ‘I don’t want to come across as too puritanical,’ Glenn says, ‘but I think you can get a feel for a game, especially if it is a series and there is some content that you can turn off.’ Sometimes he plays the games with his two sons. ‘They don’t always let me play because I am too good, except when it comes to FIFA,’ he continues.

Isaac is banned from gaming for one day if he receives a bad note from a teacher or for things such as being rude to his parents. Sometimes he is banned for longer. ‘It hasn’t happened much but it has happened,’ Isaac says. ‘I think once I was banned for a week and I went on when I wasn’t supposed to so got banned for another week.’ The initial week ban was for being rude to his father.

Isaac says that when his brother is on the Xbox ‘I try to talk to him and because he is so engrossed in the game he doesn’t hear me at all.’ But he admits he is the same when he is playing. ‘If I am concentrating then I probably won’t hear someone,’ he says.

Mary is not worried about the amount of time her boys spend gaming. ‘I feel as though because they are doing it together, and they have a balance with other hobbies, it isn’t a problem,’ she says. Isaac plays football for his school team and a local Saturday league team. There isn’t much space left in Isaac’s schedule for any other screen-time activities. ‘They don’t have much time to watch TV in the week,’ Mary says. ‘On Friday and Saturday nights we watch films together as a family.’

Isaac has his own laptop that he uses for his homework. He has a Facebook account but doesn’t use it much at all. He can access the internet using his iPod Touch or his phone, a Samsung Galaxy, but he usually only surfs the web to prove Ted wrong – or possibly even right – if they are having an argument about something.

He is on Twitter, following mostly his family, football players and a feed called Mind Blowing Facts, which ‘gives updates on really weird facts, like Chuck Norris was born the day before the Nazis surrendered,’ Isaac says. He and Ted have now started their own YouTube channel. ‘We made one where we would record something and then slow it down so it looked funny,’ Ted says. ‘Hitting an egg with a cricket bat, bursting balloons,’ Glenn adds.

Leanne Prescott is the daughter of Petula, a social worker, and Peter, a groundsman.

She has an older brother, Arnie. She lives in Southport.

Despite being the first and one of only three people in her year at school to own an iPhone, Leanne does not use it much. In the past she has become irritated by the amount of time her friends spend on their mobile phones. ‘When I’m at sleepovers everyone is on their phone the whole time and I’m just sat there. I don’t like being on my phone all the time.’ She even banned the use of mobiles at her own sleepover. ‘My friends were all texting people and I didn’t see why they were even here,’ she said.

She says she spends ‘no more than half an hour’ a day on her iPhone. Her favourite apps are the puzzle apps 4 Pics 1 Word and Draw Line. As well as the iPhone, Leanne has her own iPad, a laptop and a television in her room, which she says she watches, ‘quite a lot – an average of an hour or two a day.’ There are no rules regarding when she is allowed to watch it. Her parents know what she is watching because Leanne’s television is linked to the Sky box in the living room. ‘I like to watch Top Gear in bed. Sometimes they [her parents] find a film for me.’

Petula says they don’t set any rules or monitor the amount of time Leanne spends in front of screens. ‘She is sensible,’ Peter adds. However her mother does keep an eye on the content she has access to online and has set up parental controls. ‘I go on [Leanne’s Facebook account] more than she does,’ Petula says.

‘I tell her not to message my friends,’ Leanne adds. ‘Once she sent a message to my friend on Facebook. She said, “Hi.” My friend said, “Was that you or your mum?” She can look on it, but she can’t message people.’

Zoe Bielenberg is the daughter of Dickie, the managing director of a software company, and Britta, a radio journalist.

She has an older sister, Anna, and a younger brother, Christopher. She lives in London.

Zoe is an avid reader and for Christmas last year received a Kindleloaded with 12 books. ‘It is nice reading on my Kindle,’ she says. ‘But I do still like proper books as well.’ Aside from the time spent on her Kindle – which varies vastly from week to week – Zoe says she spends approximately half an hour in front of screens per day. This could be spent watching television with her family (she rarely watches alone) – ‘things like David Attenborough’s Africa programme,’ she says – or on her iPhone or laptop.

On her laptop Zoe does her homework and then checks her Facebook account. ‘I mostly just message my friends on Facebook,’ she says. ‘Or I post those cool, funny quotes called Teenage Posts. Lots of my friends put those on Facebook. They are cool quotes, things like, “I hate when my parents ask who I am texting,” or something like that,’ she explains.

Zoe thinks that generally boys her age use screens more than girls. ‘All of the boys at school are on their iPods the whole time at break, deep in concentration on their games,’ she says. ‘But the girls are outside talking.’

As for iPads, coveted by most children her age, she says, ‘I don’t want one. My parents have one and I don’t ask to use it much at all. The other day we saw a boy having his hair cut and he wouldn’t sit still. He was four or five years old and he had to play on an iPad to keep him occupied. He will be attached to it when he grows up and won’t be very sociable.’

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