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Nigel Hastilow: Tech-age Ratners are fleeing a sinking chip

By Nigel Hastilow | Nigel Hastilow | Published:

Billionaires in Silicon Valley are wary of too much mobile phone use – and we should be too.

Expect tantrums when you deprive teens of their phones

When Gerald Ratner infamously denigrated his own jewellery company’s products it wiped £500 million off its value.

He was particularly dismissive of two of his products, and said they probably wouldn’t last as long as a Marks & Spencer prawn sandwich.

Inevitably, millions of shoppers steered clear. So why do we insist on allowing children to use social media and games websites when Silicon Valley’s billionaires won’t allow their own kids to pick up a smartphone or own an iPad?

The people who have grown mega-rich from flogging us their technology are so horrified by the monsters they have created they are now trying desperately to stop their own children from becoming addicts.

One Facebook executive says: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

Relaxed

That’s worse than an unfavourable comparison to a long-in-the-tooth sarnie, and yet most parents are still reasonably relaxed about allowing their offspring to spend their time playing fatuous war games like Fortnite.

When I asked what a 12-year-old relative wanted for Christmas, the answer was £20 to buy a suit. That’s a pretty cheap suit, I thought, but it turned out this was upgraded virtual apparel for his Fortnite character. He got a physical, real-life game instead.

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Now Evan Spiegel, the 28-year-old boss of Snapchat, has become the latest Silicon Valley cyber-billionaire to restrict the use of his seven-year-old step-son Flynn’s screen time.

Flynn is only allowed 90 minutes a week. It’s the sort of restriction many parents are trying to impose on their children to stop them becoming addicts. Snapchat, by the way, and for the benefit of those who have yet to enjoy its delights, allows users to send messages and pictures and is blamed for the rise and rise of the ‘selfie’.

Mr Spiegel’s company boasts to advertisers that they can ‘reach an engaged audience that lives only on Snapchat’.

Recoil

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Though not, apparently, young Flynn. His life is not to be spent only on Snapchat because his step-dad realises how bad it is for him.

Mr Spiegel is not the first Silicon Valley billionaire to recoil at the damage his product does to young minds.

The late Steve Jobs, revered founder of Apple, wouldn’t let his kids use an iPad while Bill Gates, the Microsoft zillionaire, banned his from using a mobile until they were teenagers.

But it’s hard work trying to limit a child’s access to screens.

Most have a mobile phone, in theory so they can phone home in an emergency and their parents can track their whereabouts.

But, given half a chance, children would be glued to their devices morning, noon and night.

People like Mr Spiegel develop software specifically to encourage real addiction. According to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who have deliberately created this craving, deprivation can have the same sort of impact as a druggie’s withdrawal from crack cocaine.

Household tantrums are inevitable when a concerned parent tries to prize apart a child and a smartphone.

‘Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t I?’ is a typical response.

And why not? It keeps the kids quiet and out of harm’s way.

But what effect does it have on them? Opinion is divided. Some people say it’s only the same as the effect on previous generations of spending hours on end watching television.

In theory they should be outside playing, getting their clothes dirty, or inside reading a book, using their imaginations, taking up hobbies or even talking to each other.

Yet their parents are guilty of setting a bad example.

Ignoring

Many adults spend their lives checking mobiles for one reason or another, posting pictures on Facebook or watching YouTube videos.

Some of them are so busy messing about on-line they don’t even notice they are ignoring their own children and preventing them from coming back to reality.

We can’t uninvent the mobile phone or the tablet and they do play a valuable role in our lives. We could do without them – although I know one or two adults who start to panic if they leave home without one. It’s up to parents to police how their children consume all the tat and dross on offer just a couple of clicks away on the internet.

Over Christmas we had a bright but bored 12-year-old staying with us for a few days. His parents only allow him access to the internet for half an hour a day. He moans about it constantly and when he’s not on his mobile, he’s watching the world’s most banal TV show in which two people travel through a computer game picking up prizes.

However, he still contrived to play football, go for walks and read a book and a half in the four days he was with us.

When the cyber-billionaires agree their products are rotting children’s brains, maybe it’s time we stopped buying their products. We did the same with Gerald Ratner and he was only talking about sherry decanters and silver-plated trays.

Tourist trail

The Home Secretary Sajid Javid likes his holidays. Unfortunately, the MP for Bromsgrove always seems to be away from the office during a crisis.

He was in Dubai when he should have been dealing with a row over business rates; in Australia during the Tata steel crisis; and he spent this Christmas on safari in South Africa while illegal migrants were paddling over the English Channel.

It’s unreasonable to say politicians should not go on holiday. They do need a break from time to time. But Mr Javid has an unfortunate knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not a good look for a wannabe Prime Minister.

Tea and pasties

Now the New Year is upon us, advertisers think it’s about time we booked our summer holidays. The question of where in the world we can go gets harder by the year.

France is an obvious choice. But these days, what with riots every Saturday and strikes the rest of the time, I don’t think so.

Spain, perhaps, but then again they are trying to steal Gibraltar while the chances of a new flare-up over Catalonia’s independence seem highly likely. Italy? The economy is close to collapse. America? With Trump? China? Surely not.

There’s always Scotland, I suppose, if you can stand rain, midges and the locals’ hostility.

So I suppose it’ll probably be Cornwall again, always assuming the separatists are too busy fleecing the grockles to worry about politics.

Misery-guts

For the first time ever, it seems, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables that’s actually faithful to the book is being seen on TV.

This comes as a huge relief to those of us who loathed the film and stage musicals.

They were dull, dull, dull, yet it seems many viewers of the BBC’s new adaptation have turned off in disgust because it contains no singing.

I for one welcome that as a giant leap for mankind but then I have tried hard and continue to be baffled by the apparently widespread appeal of the musical version.

Give me Mary Poppins any day. Even Mary Poppins Returns.

Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow

Express & Star columnist

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