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NICOLE COX

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2015 Australian of the Year Local Hero and Mum of two, Juliette Wright, explains why ‘thank yous’ are the impetus behind GIVIT and the currency in which she thrives.

“The first day of kindergarten and wow, my son looks like a million bucks in his new school shoes,” Juliette reads. “Thanks heaps to the kind person who bought him his shiny shoes.
“When I was growing up I never had any shoes, only ones with scratches and holes which I tried to cover up with the teacher’s sticky tape.
“My son looked as good as the rest of the kids with his new shoes. Thank you again for your wonderful work.”

It’s these simple thank-you gestures that tug at her heartstrings and have driven the 41-year-old to turn the humble act of Giving into an incredible mass outpouring of community generosity across our nation. That she has earned deserved kudos and was named the 2015 Australian Local Hero at January’s prestigious Australian of the Year Awards is just a bonus.
“For everyone else in the world, their currency is money. But my currency is thank-yous because that’s how we all survive. At GIVIT we thrive on them,” Juliette tells Offspring.

Since 2010 GIVIT has facilitated the contribution of more than 145,000 items, including during devastating storms, cyclones, floods, to victims of crime and people who have literally lost everything in house fires.

For Juliette Wright, the thank-yous come thick and fast. Day in, day out. Email, snail mail, greeting cards, phone calls.
And the joy, happiness and fulfilment they bring is what makes this Queensland mother-of-two’s job one of the most rewarding on offer. She is helping change lives for the better – and having a real impact on impoverished, vulnerable and marginalised Australians.

It was 2010 when Juliette launched GIVIT – Goods for Good Causes – an online platform that links charities with their communities. Charities, including domestic violence shelters, homeless networks, child safety groups and at-risk youth agencies, can list the urgent needs of their clients and individuals wanting to donate can advertise specific items they have to give.
“Charities get authenticated and then they can go into a virtual warehouse where they put in their postcode, how far they’re willing to travel and a search word. All the items within their area field that have been pledged by local donors come up,” Juliette explains.
“Or, if they can’t find what they need for their clients, they do a new request and that goes onto our urgently-needed list which goes into a postcode related email…And if there are no registered charities in your area, you only receive postal goods.”
In the first year, the website assisted in 3000 donations and since 2010 has facilitated the contribution of more than 145,000 items, including during devastating storms, cyclones, floods, to victims of crime and people who have literally lost everything in house fires.
In 2011, GIVIT became the Queensland Government’s official donation website when flooding wreaked havoc on the state. There were 1.8 million hits on the website, which resulted in 33,500 items being matched to needy recipients in a three-week period.
Donations in the aftermath of natural disasters span from safety gear in the initial days to the need for care packages and toiletries and later, building goods such as doors, window panes, bricks and paint as communities start to rebuild. Furniture and whitegoods are also donated.
It was after the birth of Juliette’s second child, Hudson, six years ago, that she realised the need for individualised and targeted donations to charities.

I rang a charity for children and they needed closed-toe work boots and I was like: ‘what for?’ and the woman told me that the reason the children are homeless was because their father had lost his job and if we got him a pair of boots, he would be able to get work on the roads.

 

After enduring placenta accreta during pregnancy – a condition where the placenta abnormally attaches too deeply to the uterine wall – and the rapid associated weight gain in Hudson after birth, Juliette contacted local charities looking to donate Top Brand children’s clothing he had outgrown.
“Hudson had actually put on so much weight that he went from 000 clothes to 0 size clothing in about six weeks,” Juliette recounts. “So, I had all these beautiful clothes – Sprout, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren that Hudson could never wear.
“Someone had put a severed pig head in our local charity bin and I thought I’m not putting them in the donation bin because that’s disgusting and these clothes are way too valuable… So I thought I’d ring charities in Brisbane and drop them off but none of the charities wanted them – not one charity. I asked them what they did need and I think that’s when GIVIT was really born.

“I realised that one charity needed new undies. I rang another charity and they said they needed tampons. I rang a charity for children and they needed closed-toe work boots and I was like: ‘What for?’ and the woman told me that the reason the children are homeless was because their father had lost his job and if we got him a pair of boots, he would be able to get work on the roads.
“It was then I realised that a pair of boots can actually pull a family out of poverty. How could we have guessed that a charity for children needed closed-toe work boots? There’s no way we could do that so I saw the gap for GIVIT.
“I realised that there is no way for a charity to tell you daily what they need for their clients. There’s no advertising agency list or anything like that. And secondly, we’re really bad at guessing what charities need and we’re always going to be bad at it because what they need is random and weird and different absolutely every single day.”
Australian Council of Social Services research shows that almost 14 per cent of Australians are living below the poverty line, with single adults earning just $400 a week and a family of four surviving on $841 a week.

In addition, one in six Australian children are living in poverty, a statistic that devastates Juliette.
“That’s really, really difficult to swallow in this day and age,” she says. “It’s like there’s a hidden poverty but it’s also a quiet poverty because people can go about their daily lives and not be aware.
“So I decided to start a GIVIT website. I didn’t know if anyone was going to donate and I was pretty terrified that no one would donate.”

But within two hours a microwave had been pledged to a man whose wife had recently died.
“He couldn’t cook hot meals so without a microwave all he was going to have was toast,” Juliette says. “It was a really life-changing item for him because the charity could cook meals, put them in the freezer and he could have nutritious meals.”
Soon after, the second item was donated – a bicycle with a baby carriage that enabled a homeless mother to take her child to daycare and get herself a part-time job.
In an unusual case, a West Australian charity requested a boxing bag in a desperate bid to avert further assaults on a young mother whose children had been attacking her.

“Two weeks later, it was donated and we got feedback from the charity that once the mother had received that boxing bag, the children were using it and they had not hit her once,” Juliette says.

“So, what I deemed as a non-essential item for me was an absolutely life-saving item for her because her children were violent and aggressive. They had been abused and she was getting abused by them.

Australian Council of Social Services research shows that almost 14 per cent of Australians are living below the poverty line, with single adults earning just $400 a week and a family of four surviving on $841 a week.
One in six Australian children are living in poverty.

In the five years since its inception, GIVIT has grown to have a presence in every Australian state, with more than 1000 frontline charities now supported by the model. In Queensland, 646 charities are registered to the GIVIT site, with more than 100 in each New South Wales and Victoria and 77 West Australian groups have joined the movement.
The overwhelming popularity of GIVIT has also spawned GIVIT Kids – a program to “breed philanthropists and givers” and engage youngsters in the joy of giving.
“The GIVIT Kids website is about engaging them in giving, no matter what they want to give,” Juliette says. “But also allowing them to donate the stuff that they no longer need around the house, the beautiful items that they no longer require, to a child who doesn’t have what they need – the school recorders or the shiny black shoes that they bought in October and didn’t need in January.
“It’s about teaching them how to contribute in ways that you don’t need money.”
The program also includes specialist education, which has been adopted in the Queensland schools’ civic and citizenship curriculum and is now an approved teaching resource for Years 3, 5 and 6.
“The funny thing about the GIVIT model is that I really want to help impoverished people all the time but when I actually go to a homeless shelter sometimes I spend the whole next day crying in bed because it really upsets me,” Juliette says.

“I launched through Facebook only having 10 charities on board and now I’ve got 1000 charities on board and we’ve donated 145,000 items. And it’s all because of me and that first addiction when I dropped off the new undies at that charity and they looked at me like I was Santa Claus. No one’s ever done that before and it just made me feel like I was really connected to my community.”

“I decided at that point not to judge any more. We have to trust the charities because the charities are the ones in the room…Charities don’t abuse the system because they are social workers who just want the best for their clients and we trust them.”
“If I go to an injecting user service and I see people and their young children, I don’t recover like everybody else. I take that really personally. I can’t handle it so I think the GIVIT model really works for people like me. It’s enabling charities who are the social workers to do all the great work and we make sure they get everything they need.
“I remember I went to Grantham after the floods and I was crying for the whole three days later. I was still working but was rendered hopeless in meetings so I’d have to work from home.”
Juliette says she is humbled at GIVIT’s success and honoured that her initiative is connecting communities and improving the lives of society’s most needy.

www.givit.org.auwww.givitkids.org.au

STATE-BY-STATE: THE NUMBER OF CHARITIES SUPPORTED BY GIVIT

Queensland: 64620-24 One of our first GIVIT Kids donors.Madison Mc Carthy_LR
New South Wales: 113
Victoria: 108
Western Australia: 77
South Australia: 13
Northern Territory: 8
Australian Capital Territory: 6
Tasmania: 4

 

What would you do if you were told not one, but both of your children had a rare genetic disorder that would likely kill them by the time they were 20? Amid the heartbreaking diagnoses, one Australian family has taken up a global fight.

“I’ll never be a grandmother, I’ll never teach my kids to drive or see them get married.”

Megan Donnell draws a deep breath. Her sadness is palpable, her grief overwhelming. But her resolve and fighting spirit is profound and awe-inspiring.

Megan and her husband, Allan, have been dealt the most unimaginable torment a parent could bare.

For any mother or father, it’s the hardest thing in the world to reconcile – the prospect of outliving a child.

But for this Sydney couple, it’s a double devastation being told by doctors their now five-year-old daughter had been born with an ultra-rare genetic disorder that would eventually kill her – and a month later learning that their son Jude, 3, would someday suffer the very same fate.

Both Isla and Jude have Sanfilippo Syndrome, a cruel, degenerative disorder for which there is no effective treatment. Unless a cure is found soon, their life expectancy is likely to be their mid-teens.

“Our life was turned completely upside down,” Megan says. “We were a normal family with two healthy children and we never expected to ever have to face anything like this. “It’s the worst grief you can imagine being told that your child is going to die – a child that you thought was perfectly healthy.

“We started grieving from that day for the life that we thought they were going to have. Regardless of how long my kids live or what quality of life they live, we’ve already lost the hope of so many things that people take for granted.

“I’ll never be a grandmother, I’ll never teach my kids to drive or see them get married. You grieve for the life that is gone that you thought your child was going to have from the minute they’re diagnosed with something like this.”

It was May last year when Isla was diagnosed with Sanfilippo, after a series of tests into speech development delays.

There were no tell-tale signs and by their parents’ own admission, Isla and Jude were and still are “typical kids”.

A “girly girl”, Isla loves dolls and her dolls house. Like most kids, she’s partial to singing and dancing and is almost always donning dress-ups – including over her pyjamas at night before bedtime.

Jude is a happy, chatty and inquisitive boy brimming with energy and a constant stream of questions for his parents. He prefers to run, not walk and is almost always covered in scratches and bruises from his daily adventures.

“In my gut, I just felt that Isla wasn’t developing as her peers. The concern was primarily around speech. She had lots of single words but the joining together into sentences wasn’t happening as rapidly as I saw in her peers,” Megan says.

“Almost as a formality, all the kids who go through that assessment process go through a series of tests where they look for a whole raft of different genetic conditions…To me, it was just ticking a box.”

Two weeks later, the Donnell family received the news that would change their lives.

“At that stage, we were completely devastated and blind-sided,” Megan says. “We had no idea that she could possibly have anything that was so severe and serious. She’s been a normal kid for her life with a few minor (developmental) delays so we were completely shocked. It never even crossed our minds that Jude would have anything wrong.”

Also known as MPSIII, Sanfilippo is a deadly genetic disorder that results in severe damage to the central nervous system and irreversible brain damage. Caused by a deficient enzyme in the metabolic process, waste builds up in the cells, particularly the brain cells, and the build-up of toxic matter starts to show as learning delays. Sufferers usually live to between 12 and 20.

Children with Sanfilippo appear healthy at birth

Children with Sanfilippo appear healthy at birth, with the first symptoms usually presenting as missed milestones, such as lagging speech development, between the ages of two and six.

The effects are gradual, but utterly devastating. Parents watch their children deteriorate before their eyes – dealing with hyperactivity, seizures, sleeplessness and intellectual disability before the graduation to dementia, incontinence and losing all ability to walk, talk and swallow.

But the Donnells have mounted a race against time to find a cure. Megan quit her job as a management consultant and the family set up the Sanfilippo Children’s Foundation, an Australian organisation dedicated to progressing clinical science for an effective treatment.

While grappling with the likelihood that their two precious children will not survive into adulthood, the couple hopes to raise awareness and has started a mammoth fundraising effort to help fund human trials they hope will halt the insidious illness.

If anything, it will be Isla and Jude’s legacy to future generations of Sanfilippo sufferers.

Sanfilippo is so rare that both parents must have a gene mutation, found in one in 150,000 people, to be carriers of the disease. Even then, there is just a one in four chance of that couple will have a child with Sanfilippo.

About one in 70,000 children are born with the condition.

“The disease itself and how it’s managed is extremely complex and a lot of families find that there just isn’t the support or services out there to help manage,” Megan says.

“There’s support and services for a child with an intellectual disability or a physical disability like cerebral palsy but for a very complex disorder like this one, which changes over time, it’s quite difficult to get the level of support that parents need to manage it.”

For Sanfilippo families, time is against them. For every day and every month, the disease takes greater hold. Researchers believe the sooner therapy treatment starts, the better chance there is of slowing or halting the symptoms.

“We are really hoping that we can work with research institutions here to bring one of these three trials to run out of Australia.”

Traditional enzyme replacement therapies available for similar diseases have been ineffective for Sanfilippo because the products are unable to get across the blood-brain barrier.

And crushingly, pharmaceutical companies often see little benefit in funding research into uncommon conditions like Sanfilippo, given the extreme rareness and limited prospect to make good financial returns.

But medical research has recently achieved promising breakthroughs in the realm of gene therapy with at least three new trials scheduled to start in the US, Spain and France in the next two years.

The US trial has shown promising results in halting the disease in animals and it is this experiment the Donnells are pitting their hopes on. But the potentially life-saving trial, due to start at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio early next year, will have just 15 available places for Sanfilippo children worldwide.

“We are really hoping that we can work with research institutions here to bring one of these three trials to run out of Australia. That would help to build our scientific and research capability here and obviously it optimises the number of children we can get treated.”

For now, they are trying to stave off progression of the disease in Isla and Jude through speech and occupational therapies as well as alternative options like naturopathy and reflexology.

“The thing for us is that time is so critical because the disease moves so quickly,” Megan said. “If I could cryogenically freeze my kids I would. I just want to stop time. The thing that we don’t have is time so we have to do everything we do with urgency.”

The group is well short of the millions of dollars needed over the next 18 months to meet its financial commitment to the US trial and has set its sights on larger scale philanthropy and corporate partnerships to help fund a scientific breakthrough.

“Any child who has Sanfilippo today, realistically the only hope that they’ll ever have at a treatment is getting on a trial because the time it takes to get something from trial to market is far too long,” Megan says.

“Even if this Ohio drug is a miracle drug, by the time it is actually approved and available to patients, any child with Sanfilippo now will be too far gone for it to be of any benefit. So, our objective is to get the science moving as fast as we can so that future families have options.

“This is precisely why we set up the foundation. Our drivers really are not necessarily to save our kids, but for our kids’ lives to have meant something – the fact that they lived and helped to accelerate the science for future families. That will be a positive outcome.

“All of the things that have happened globally have been driven by families who came before us so we almost saw it as an obligation that we needed to jump on board because if it wasn’t for the families before us, the science wouldn’t be this close in giving us the hope that we have.”

 

Sanfilippo Children’s Foundation: www.sanfilippo.org.au

If you would like to donate to the cause, visit: www.sanfilippo.org.au/donate.php

Teaching your child cyber safety and online smarts in 2014 is as important as learning to swim and cross the road, reveals renowned child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg.

MICHAEL Carr-Gregg doesn’t beat around the bush.

Passionate, frank and to the point, the child and adolescent psychologist is a realist.

He’s acutely aware that society now lives in a digital world. And he holds grave concerns that most parents “don’t have a clue” about the plethora of cyber dangers and potential “nasties” facing their children online these days.

But the internet, he says, is not a demon. And social media is not something to shun.

Instead, the answer is to embrace it – with caution – and instil a family internet policy to protect children without limiting their freedom to learn, explore and communicate online.

As one of Australia’s foremost experts on cyberbullying, Dr Carr-Gregg says parents and other adults underestimate the dangers facing youngsters and the damaging psychological effects of online harassment.

He says we are living with the phenomenon of “digital Dutch courage” where children and teenagers show extreme bravado and say and do things online that they would never contemplate in real life.

And the advent of the internet, smart phones and tablets has added a whole new 24/7 digital dimension to traditional schoolyard bullying.

In days gone by, bullying victims were afforded some respite outside of school hours with their homes providing a temporary safe haven. But these days, online interactions happen around the clock.

“School has changed a lot,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “When I was at school and I was bored, we would just play with our yoyos…These days it’s very different.”

His new book, Beyond Cyberbullying, provides an up-to-date manual for digital parenting, highlighting significant issues facing mums and dads.

His new book, Beyond Cyberbullying, provides an up-to-date manual for digital parenting, highlighting significant issues facing mums and dads

As a father-of-two and a long-running child protection advocate, Dr Carr-Gregg wants parents to exercise greater control over their children’s online use and is calling for cybersafety education to be an essential part of the primary and secondary school curriculum in all Australian schools.

He also supports the introduction of an e-safety commissioner, which is currently under consideration by the Federal Government, and wants children to sit “digital drivers’ license” tests to demonstrate they have the skills to use online resources responsibly.

“What I want to say to parents is that the internet isn’t going away,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “You can’t dump your kids in the digital stream and just think that they’re going to float away happily.

“There are significant dangers in terms of cyberbullying and sexting. And the reality is that if your kid does something really dumb, they could actually end up on the sex offenders’ register.”

Dr Carr-Gregg says cyberbullying comes in many forms including harassing and threatening SMS messages, pictures or prank phone calls, impersonating a person’s screen name and posting “set-up” images and videos online.

He urges parents to be especially vigilant of the “sexting” phenomenon, which involves the sharing of sexually explicit images and videos by mobile phone, warning that such acts constitute “child pornography”.

 

TIPS FOR PARENTS

  • Ask your child about their online interactions and the people they are friends with.
  • Limit social networking to one hour a day for children.
  • For every hour of “screen time”, ensure your child invests another two hours in play (preferably outside).
  • The school’s policies on homework and bullying.
  • If your child is the victim of cyberbullying, do not take them offline. Be sympathetic and supportive.

 

According to the Alannah and Madeleine Foundation, a national charity charged with protecting children from violence, one in four young Australians are bullied at least once a fortnight.

Studies show that children are at the greatest risk of cyberbullying during the transition from primary to secondary school and again at Year 9. It’s no surprise that the perpetrators of traditional schoolyard bullying are the same kids who harass others online.

Latest research by the Australian Communications and Media Authority found up to 21 per cent of 14-15 year olds reported being cyberbullied in 2013.

Disturbingly, the study also found that 13 per cent of 16-17 year olds reported that they or their friends had been involved in “sexting” and had sent sexually suggestive nude or almost nude photos or videos of themselves. Eighteen per cent of 16-17 year olds reported receiving such messages.

“Cyberbullying is basically another form of bullying, but in cyberspace,” Dr Carr-Gregg says.

Dr Carr-Gregg wants parents to exercise greater control over their children’s online use and is calling for cybersafety education to be an essential part of the primary and secondary school curriculum in all Australian schools.

“A lot of it is through text messages saying incredibly unkind and nasty things, spreading rumours, exclusion, teasing, taunting – so it’s really just an electronic version of what used to happen in the schoolyard.

“Now we’ve got the additional problem of Facebook bullying… and of course, that gets seen by a lot of people.

“There are ‘burn books’ that name and shame people online, the ratings system where people rate their desirability from a sexual point-of-view – all of these things are 24/7. They are humiliating, they’re repeated and seen over and over again and cause considerable distress in terms of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation.”

Dr Carr-Gregg says that, contrary to popular beliefs, research has shown there are significant advantages for young people using social networking, but conceded the FOMO or “Fear Of Missing Out” phobia was one of the biggest factors contributing to social networking addiction.

“I do believe there is an obsession, particularly amongst my clients, with missing out on what’s going on,” he said. “It’s an addiction to knowing what is actually happening – and obviously being out of the loop in adolescence equals social death.”

That has been compacted by a general reluctance by parents to parent, he says.

“There seems to be a ‘Vitamin N’ deficiency in Australia at the moment and parents are very hesitant to say ‘No’.

“There seems to be this desire to be your child’s best friend, and to not put limits and boundaries around the internet is hugely problematic.

“I’m saying to parents that the use of the wi-fi network shouldn’t be taken as a right.

“They should use random wi-fi password generators so that every morning when the kids wake up there’s a new password. And they may like to put a note on their fridge that says: ‘Morning kids, would you like today’s wi-fi password? If so, make your bed, walk the dog and do your allocated chores’.

“To me, this is from the University of the bleeding obvious but a lot of parents just aren’t doing it.”

He urged parents to install blocking programs on computers to control children’s internet use. Programs such as Cold Turkey and Self Control can block all social networking sites for either 30, 60, 90 or 120 minutes.

Dr Carr-Gregg says the issue of cyberbullying is often complicated by the fact that the vast majority of kids are not disclosing when they are being harassed or victimised online.

“That is catastrophically bad because it means that nothing is done about it,” he says.

“It’s the duration and the frequency in which cyberbullying is carried out that is directly proportional to the psychological harm in terms of depression, anxiety, deliberate self-harm and suicidal thoughts. That is an absolutely pivotal message.

“The second issue is to make sure that your children know how to respond, that is not to respond but to delete the message and save the evidence to report. These are fundamental skills which are as important as teaching your child to swim and cross the road in 2014.”

Parents should be on the look-out for several tell-tale signs of cyberbullying, including if a child avoids the computer, won’t discuss their online activities, shows anxiety every time a text message arrives, sleeplessness, mood changes, appetite changes or falling grades.

“These are critical indicators that parents need to be attuned for because prompt intervention and prompt action is associated with a much better outcome.”

One of Dr Carr-Gregg’s most serious concerns is child pornography laws that he says have not kept pace with the changing technological landscape, including the issue of “sexting” amongst kids.

“One of the things that really frightens me is that you can have a 13-year-old kid who takes picture of his genitals with the school iPad and sends it to a few mates and can be prosecuted under section 474.20 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code 1995, which makes it an offence to possess, manufacture or distribute child pornography,” he says.

“I do not understand how that warrants being put on the sex offenders register or 15 years in jail or a $500,000 fine. To me, putting kids on a sex offender register for something like that is ludicrous. How do you justify putting sexually curious kids in with convicted paedophiles and how can you be the perpetrator and the victim of the same crime?”

The answer, he says, is a streamlined and mandatory cybersafety curriculum to educate children. He cites the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, which had developed several child protection programs, including eSmart frameworks for homes, libraries and schools.

The FOMO or “Fear Of Missing Out” phobia was one of the biggest factors contributing to social networking addiction.

“We need to proactively educate these kids in schools. At the moment there is a huge variety of cyber safety. There is no one system, no set of standards. In the UK, for example, cyber safety education is mandatory in primary school.”

Currently, only the Victorian and Queensland education departments have rolled out the foundation’s framework to all their schools, but some individual schools in other states have opted to introduce the policy independently.

“It’s ironic that only Victoria and Queensland have taken up e-Smart as a framework for their schools,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. “What that means is that a generation of kids will be getting substandard cyber safety education, and in some cases no cyber safety education at all. I think that is intolerable.”

IF YOUR CHILD IS THE VICTIM OF CYBERBULLYING, TELL THEM:

  • To not respond to the message or image.
  • Save the evidence.
  • Block and delete the sender.
  • Report the situation to the website or internet service provider.
  • Tell trusted people, friends, adults, teachers, parents and police, if necessary.

A true advocate of literacy for children, with 40 published picture books under her belt and a new book just released, Mem Fox has her concerns about the role of technology for young children

At 67 years young, acclaimed children’s author Mem Fox is on the national publicity circuit again and she’s exhausted. Not only does the doyenne of children’s literature have 40 published picture books to her name, but she’s reliving the taxing (yet delightful) experience of raising a child in the energetic form of her three-year-old grandson, Theo.

A recent Australian tour to promote her new book Baby Bedtime has left the literary stalwart drained and she’s drawn on all energy reserves to keep up with the boundless get-up-and-go of her pint-sized fans at storytimes across the country.

Then there’s the book signings and talks to parents and teachers about the importance of literacy and reading aloud to children, not to mention another five books in the pipeline.

“It looks as if I’m going to be dying with a pen in my hand,” Mem says with a hearty laugh. “(I’ll be) going to the grave just crossing out one word and replacing it with another.”

Clearly, retirement is not on her agenda.

It’s 30 years since Mem’s first book Possum Magic was published. Originally written as a university assignment, it is now one of Australia’s best-selling picture books, amassing almost 5 million sales worldwide.

But these days the Adelaide-based literary expert is grappling with a greater quandary. In the age of smartphones, iPads and tablets, Mem is gravely concerned about the evolution of apps and their impact on a child’s literacy development.

Mem, who has previously lambasted full-time childcare for babies under the age of one, is concerned at the “heartbreaking” phenomenon of parents turning to smartphones and tablets as quasi babysitters. It’s akin to television-sitting. And that, she says, is a danger.

“I’m not anti-technology and I’m not anti-technology for little kids, but between the ages of zero and five I do feel that we should not abandon our children to technology,” she says.

Her bestseller Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was part of Australia’s official gift to Prince George, the new royal baby born to Prince William and wife Kate in July.

“Even though I’m 67, I’m crazy about technology. I love it. I love my smart phone, I love my mini iPad. I couldn’t do without either of them, especially when I’m travelling around and I absolutely love the things that it can do for my grandson.”

She loves the fact that his motor skills are being developed by trying to navigate a mouse through a maze. She loves the fact that the iPad can introduce him to the animals of the world and teach him about nature, among other things.

“But what bothers me is when I see children abandoned to the technology in a way that they wouldn’t be abandoned with a book,” Mem says.

“It is a basic human need that we want to be with other people. We want to interact, we want to know that we’re cared for, we want to know that we’re special to certain people in our lives, we want to know that there are people who are special to us.

“And if you just let a child play on a tablet for hours on end while you do the washing, while you put tea on the table, while you’re out having coffee with a friend, even while you are reading yourself, it’s terrible for the child.

“The child is lonely, the child doesn’t feel any love and the child is not learning language because the iPad is talking to it, not with it – they’re not having a conversation.”

As an author and avid campaigner for children’s literacy, Mem has attracted international praise and her timeless tales have reached young minds across the globe in 19 languages.

Mem, who has previously lambasted full-time childcare for babies under the age of one, is concerned at the “heartbreaking” phenomenon of parents turning to Smart phones and tablets as quasi babysitters.

Her bestseller Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was part of Australia’s official gift to Prince George, the new royal baby born to Prince William and wife Kate in July.

Mem concedes that her concerns about new technologies are not based on formal research but rather a “lived experience” having helped rear her grandson with her daughter, South Australian politician Chloe Fox, due to her hectic parliamentary schedule.

“Because Chloe is a politician and because she’s a single parent, we are more like parents than grandparents. Our grandson, Theo, is three and a half and I’ve watched this happen,” she says.

“Even before Theo was born, I used to see kids abandoned, playing on Smart phones and just ignored by the adults around them. I just found it so sad. I just think there is a terrible deep sadness about a child who is ignored in favour of technology looking after it.

“I feel that deep down, psychologically, kids must pick up on the feeling that they are just being palmed off because the adults in their lives just couldn’t be bothered to interact with them.”

“I feel that deep down, psychologically, kids must pick up on the feeling that they are just being palmed off because the adults in their lives just couldn’t be bothered to interact with them.”

Mem, a retired associate professor of literacy studies, says after 24 years teaching at Flinders University she is acutely aware of the importance of reading to children and exposing them to a wide vocabulary to improve speech before starting school.

Technology, she fears, hinders that development.

“There are things that books can do which technology will never be able to do.

“When a story is being read, that child is learning about courage, about resilience, about meanness and cruelty and there is a whole lot of incidental discussion going on between the parent and the child.

“The interaction between the child and the parent is of phenomenal importance because all sorts of moral values and feelings of love and comfort and solace and warmth and tenderness are being relayed to the child…That’s not happening when a child is abandoned to technology.”

Mem says despite her concerns, there is a still place for a balance of technology and books in a child’s life if the experiences are shared with parents.

“I very much approve of children having no fear of technology, of being able to interact with it. I love to let my grandson play certain games on the iPad, literally when I’m cooking sausages and cannot leave the stove.

“But even then, he says: ‘Nanny, Nanny, come and look at this’ and I’m always pleased when he wants me to share his technology with him. He’s used to having an adult interact with him and love him and doesn’t particularly like being alone.

“The most wonderful thing about Theo, and it may certainly happen with other children who are immersed in books, is that he never tires of books and he does tire of technology.”

It’s Theo himself who has left an indelible mark on his grandmother. His premature arrival eight weeks early in January 2010 inspired Mem’s latest book, Baby Bedtime.

“Theo was very premature and didn’t look to be viable, but he did survive,” Mem recounts.

“His legs were the size of my fingers and he weighed just 1kg.

“Baby Bedtime is just an absolute outpouring of love. It is the exact opposite of an app.”

“One day, I opened the humidicrib and looked at his ears and they didn’t stick out like mine. I just loved him so much I just wanted to devour him. I said: “I could eat your little ears, I could nibble on your nose, I could munch your tiny fingers, I could gobble up your toes” and suddenly I realised I’d written the first verse of a poem for him.

“Baby Bedtime is just an absolute outpouring of love. It is the exact opposite of an app.”

The doting grandmother says she and husband Malcolm feel “so very lucky” to have had hands-on involvement in Theo’s formative years. “You know how funny little kids are. It’s side-splitting. And you get so proud of every word that they say and every step that they take.

“As well as the exhaustion, you have all of the joys. It’s a delight, it’s just divine.”