It’s late August and dusk in Provencal village Callian. In the central square, to the backdrop of a gurgling waterfall, a silver-haired, bow-legged man wobbles towards a music stand clutching an antique violin in his weathered hand. With the other, he presses out a few sheets of crumpled paper inked with treble clefs. He then lifts the instrument, nooks it under his chin and tickles its strings with a horse-haired bow. Notes float through the evening air and he warbles along with them.
I sit surrounded by three generations of my kin, sipping a cool glass of rosé and drunk on the atmosphere. Laughter from grandmother, debate from brother, story-telling from father, it is the perfect familial supper. But then shouts of “beep”, “crash” and “nooooo” erupt from the next table, sending my grandmother’s hearing aid into a fizzing frenzy. Wide-eyed, she pulls it from her ear. “What was that?” Across the square, the old French man also stops playing.
What it was (this scenario was a week ago), was the sound of a lost computer game, well, a computer game that had just been lost. I looked over, and there, sobbing uncontrollably was a girl who couldn’t have been more than six. In front of her, slammed on the table, was the cause of her histrionics – an Iphone. Next to her – and ignoring her – were her five siblings; every single one of them yielding a form of android. The parents, perched at the other end of the table, conversing with another couple, were unmoved. This, apparently, was their dining norm.
“The future of family meals,” my father said, raising an eyebrow.
“Surely not, this isn’t normal, it can’t be the future, it’s so…” I paused, deliberating over my final word. ‘Irritating’, ‘annoying’, ‘rude’? Yes, it was, but overriding all of this was something else, “it’s so…”, I concluded, “sad.”
According to a new study, which reports that now 9% of five-year-olds within the UK have a mobile phone; it looks like sadness is set to be the case. The comparison site uSwitch.com has found that, while the average age to give a child a phone is 11, one in 10 schoolchildren are given a handset at less than half this age.
Five-years-old! A phone at five! At that age, I was making dens in the garden, climbing trees to look at birds’ nests, and quarrelling with my siblings, not calling friends from primary school for a gossip, taking selfies, or – beyond contemplation – whipping out an Iphone to play Mario in the middle of supper. My mother would have gone berserk.
And I’m happy that she would have done, for my memories of childhood suppers, spent asking questions, laughing and sometimes fighting, are some of my best. It’s where I learnt valuable life skills; holding your own in conversation, finding the opportune moment to speak without interrupting, listening and debating.
What will become of the next generation? They may be more technologically adept; they may be able to write code, but there are teenage years for that, adulthood for that, a five-year-old should be playing with their brothers and sisters, not on an Iphone.
Alas, as the study shows, it appears it’s too late. The future of family meals will not be bright, but it certainly will be Orange…and 02, and EE, and Vodaphone, and 3, and whatever other networks there may be.