Jane Thynne felt concerned that her 13-year-old daughter was spending so much time online or texting that she had no time to think her own thoughts. So she banned all electronic screens from her bedroom after nine o'clock at night
At 13, I would spend long vigils beside the home telephone every evening, calling the friends who I had seen all day at school to resume our conversation. Everyone did. It's normal for teenagers to require constant interaction with their peer group, while other figures, like parents, vanish to the margins, and I saw nothing strange about spending hours crouched in our hall, discussing embarrassing teachers and hilarious friends in forensic detail. Sometimes, an exasperated parent would wrench the phone out of my hand, forcing me to skulk back to my room.
Last month I imposed the 21st century equivalent of wrenching the landline from my 13-year- old daughter's hand by imposing a computer curfew. This entailed removing her laptop, phone, Game Boy and all other screens from her room after 9pm at night, about an hour before she goes to sleep. The aim was to allow her this hour to think her own thoughts. An hour of interior life.
Our children, like most of their friends, are accessorised with both laptop and mobile phone. As a result, the potential for constant communication with their friends is ever present. Texting begins early morning and lets up last thing at night. Friends wake them up, friends say goodnight and Facebook fills all the gaps in between. The sweet, individualised ring tones that signify when a particular friend is texting beep from 6.30 am to 11pm, chirruping their insistent way through supper, homework, bath time and sleep. On the bus, kids attach their headphones and carry on. Technology embraces our children, like ourselves, in a warm electronic sea, and the tide of it comes ever higher.
Does this matter? Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, thinks it does. Last month she told the BBC Radio 4's Today Programme that this "cyber-lifestyle" is rewiring our brains and even without making a value judgment, we need at least to acknowledge that there is an issue.
Others are not so wary of making a value judgment. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, claims that "loss of concentration and focus, division of our attention and fragmentation of our thoughts", is changing how our minds work, creating shorter attention spans and making reading harder by destroying "the linear, literary mind". Sue Palmer, in her new book, 21st Century Girls, goes all out for total technological cold turkey. "Allowing electronic strangers into a girl's bedroom before her mid-teens is an extremely bad idea. If parents want their daughters to establish healthy sleeping habits they have to bite the bullet and insist that their bedroom remains a technology-free zone."
Especially for girls, with their intimate, gossipy, social natures, the drive to remain as connected as possible with friends is overwhelming. Yet perversely, floating in an electronic sea has the deeper effect of depriving them of the habit of being alone, developing their own thoughts. Needless to say, my efforts to explain this to my daughter were pretty hapless. I dredged up the example of the hostage Terry Waite who got through years chained to a radiator in Beirut by the sheer strength of his interior life. My daughter listened politely, but her expression was incredulous. When was she ever going to be chained to a radiator in Beirut?
As a writer, married to another writer, Philip Kerr, I had one other, overriding concern. The key thing children miss out on without that moment of solitude before sleep, is reading. A generation ago, if you saw a light under a child's bedclothes, it would be a torch illuminating some secretive paperback. Now the light under the bedclothes has changed to the blue phosphorescent glow of a laptop or an iPad or a phone, and it's a dead cert that no one is reading Jane Eyre.
The concern that children aren't reading isn't new, of course – there's a survey practically every day. A report by Professor Keith Topping for this year's World Book Day, which looked at the reading habits of 300,000 pupils, found that reading ages were actually declining. Increasing numbers of 13 and 14-year-olds opted for books with a primary-school reading age.
Topping warned that that if children don't engage with more sophisticated books, they will fail to engage with more sophisticated ideas. Universities complain that literature students arrive unable to master a full Victorian novel, so they have to study in bite-sized chunks. One English tutor from a Russell Group university tells of the time she asked her undergraduates to read Daniel Deronda. 'What, all of it?' they chorused in astonishment. I don't believe you can overstate the case for literature, but whatever you think about the importance of George Eliot, reading also develops key life skills, including the empathy to place yourself imaginatively in another mind and the ability to sustain deep concentration.
My children would be the first to point out that I'm as bad as any teenager in wasting time on Twitter and Facebook. Those addictive social networks account for at least half an hour of my day that I won't get back. Yet it seems a more grievous thing to rob a child of the chance to read. Particularly when I had the best of chances myself.
As a teenager I spent time with my uncle, John Carey, an English professor, and his wife Gill in the Cotswolds countryside. Their life seemed pretty rarefied compared to my south London schoolgirl's existence. They didn't have a television and they took country walks, during which John would talk about books, writers, plays and poetry in his uniquely gossipy yet insightful way. I remember a long discussion about Edward Thomas and the effect that his depression had on his poetry, which ended with us at Adlestrop itself, where part of the famous Edward Thomas poem is inscribed on a bench in the bus shelter. It was a transcendent moment in which literature and life seemed to co-incide.
Yet here am I with my heavy-handed computer curfew. Luckily, our daughter has taken to it. She reads and loves poetry, but I know I'm just Canute trying to hold back the tide. I can't help envying previous generations of parents who didn't have to face this addictive electronic onslaught in their efforts to give their children a bit of time on their own. Adults can subscribe to computer programmes like the Freedom internet blocking software, which forcibly prevents them from social networking for several hours a day. They can even turn off the internet router, though that doesn't stop access from a 3G phone. But the fact remains that for children, the chance to be alone and read, write or simply think, is vanishing in our connected world. We should do everything we can to help them reclaim a small desert island of their own in the electronic sea.
Black Roses by Jane Thynne is published by Simon & Schuster £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, including free UK p&P, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846