Punishment in the Digital Age -- Katherine Roberts

I live in Devon, where I recently observed a family with two teenage daughters visiting one of our beautiful gardens open to the public. The girls were larking about on the lawn, and one of them took their horseplay a bit far, hurting her sister. The mother's immediate response was, "Right, hand it over for half an hour!" and took possession of the offending girl's smartphone.  The teenager grumbled loudly as she surrendered the device (even though she hadn't looked at it once during their boisterous lawn session), whereupon the mother snapped: "Ok, now it's an hour!"

Welcome to punishment in the 21st century.

In my teenage years, punishment involved staying behind after school for an hour in detention, writing out 100 times: "I must not push my little sister over backwards when she's doing a handstand." while all my friends were down on the beach enjoying the last of the sunshine. But in those days, of course, we didn't have smartphones (or any other kind of personal phone) to confiscate... and actually you were lucky if you had a landline at home.

In less enlightened times, punishments for young people were more physical. You would most likely have got a slap with a ruler across your palm, delivered by a teacher or stern father figure. Or, in stricter schools and households, maybe a leather strap across the backside. (That was a bit before my time, but I can remember my dad slapping me across the back of my thighs when I was small - a fairly common sight in those days if younger kids played their parents up in public.) 

But corrective measures doled out to children are usually designed to be more psychological than painful. Sent to bed early without supper... 'grounded' in your bedroom for a weekend... ordered to wash your mouth out with soap for saying a rude word... threatened with child-eating monsters from a folk tale (unlikely to have much effect today, but pre-Google children really believed such ghouls would come and devour them in the night if they were bad!). So I suppose depriving a 21st century teenager of her smartphone, and thus contact with her many Facebook friends, makes perfect sense?

However, taking a different view, a whole hour to spend in a sunny Devonshire garden with your family, without the constant distraction of social media updates and anxiety-inducing news reports... such days are more of a gift than punishment, surely? Also, on the positive side, an hour without your smartphone means temporary relief from its radiation (supposedly non-ionising, but the jury is still out on that if you're using 5G), a rest for your eyes from squinting at its screen in bright sunlight (you might not think this a problem if you're still a teenager, but just you wait until you hit middle age...), temporary escape from its constant surveillance, as well as kindness to passing strangers who might not be very interested in your personal (I won't say private, since you're having them loudly in the middle of a public garden) conversations.

Whether you buy into the "we all need to be connected wirelessly wherever we are 24/7 in case we need to contact the emergency services, get lost without satnav, need to identify a flower we don't know the name of (because Google knows everything, so why bother learning any?), or miss an essential update from one of our million Facebook friends" argument, or not, you have to wonder about future generations who will grow up observing such smartphone dependent behaviour in their parents and grandparents.

Maybe I am unusual in deliberately leaving my phone at home, cycling five miles to a public garden, spending the day there with a book and my own thoughts, identifying a few flowers and birds (which I did bother to learn the names of, because Google did not exist when I was a teenager), cycling five miles home again, and maybe even then not turning on the computer? I'm not anti-tech, as being able to go online and look something up, or get directions to somewhere I haven't been before, is definitely useful. But I do these things on my computer at home, and they are quite different activities from actually visiting a place I've previously looked up online.

Pretty soon now, I predict everyone will be as dependent upon their smart stuff as users of Class A drugs are on their particular high. A completely connected society, where people are part of a planet-wide computer system, and those old-fashioned devices called 'phones' you annoyingly used to have to hold in your hand or under your chin while doing something else are a thing of the past, since babies will be routinely implanted at birth with smart-chips directly wired into their brains. In our smart cities, machines will apparently be able to talk to other machines, cars will drive themselves, you'll only have to think "what's the name of that flower?" and the answer will immediately blossom in your brain, no need even to ask Alexa. You'll be able to direct your self-drive car by thought alone. The emergency services will be there before you even know there's been an accident, and nobody will ever panic about leaving their phone at home, or their battery running out if they've gone on holiday and forgotten the charger, as it's all inside your head (presumably feeding off your brainwaves somehow... but hopefully the extra power consumption will have been thought about and properly provided for). Our future smart grid will run like a smoothly-oiled machine, but we won't have a clue how it works - except without oil, obviously, as it is powered by so-called 'green' electricity, just like our electric cars (I'm not even going there - Google it!)

Hooray! We'll have solved the climate crisis and our smartphone addiction once and for all!

Until we get a power cut. Or someone switches us all off.


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers.

Her King Arthur's daughter ebooks are on special offer until the end of the summer holidays at only 99p/99c each. Price returns to full in September, as she's been told her energy bills will have tripled by then.

Sword of Light

Find out more on her website



Peter Leyland said…
Well, that's a lot to take in Katherine but here goes. First I thought about how the worst childhood punishment for me and my brother was the stopping of our comics, in our case The Tiger and The Victor (signs of the times), then I thought as you continued that it's all about communication and how we all hate being cut off from each other and it's better to be able to connect. I don't know how I'd react to being cut off. I enjoy solitude of the kind you mention, reading and having my own thoughts, but I don't think I'd survive on that for long. Your piece made me consider all kind of dystopian futures and I was reminded of one of my favourite books, The Chrysalids, where teenagers can communicate telepathically (without the approval of their parents). I actually think we're going a bit that way now, and if we didn't have all this wireless communication, how could we possibly communicate our AuthorsElectric ideas to each other?

Just a thought
I think I've read The Chrysalids! Telepathy always seems a double-edged sword to me. Brilliant when you are in the mood to communicate, not so great if people can randomly pop into your head and say "hi", when you really just want to be alone with your thoughts. I guess when the human race becomes telepathic, we'll all need some sort of thought shield - though the temptation will be to keep lowering it to see what everyone else is up to... similar to the constant chatter from smartphones, I guess?

Yes, online communication is a great substitute for when you can't manage the real thing (and it doesn't have to be wireless - I'm not using wi-fi to write this) but sometimes I'm afraid we're losing touch with the real world. The past two years have forced a shift, and I don't think the new world is one I want to live in.

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