“Minimise screen time by engaging your child in realtime activities like play and conversation. Our kids really need to get active.”
A ping here and a notification there. Mobile gadgets, social media and electronic screens have become a huge part of family life.
However, research has painted a scary picture of how excessive screen time is affecting kids’ development. Being constantly connected can also affect concentration and academic performance, experts say.
Child development expert Dr Jennifer Kiing has seen her fair share of kids who are exposed too much screen time.
“I have seen parents who place mobile devices into cots to help their child sleep,” shares Dr Kiing, a senior consultant at the Child Development Unit of the National University Hospital (NUH).
“Of course, the child never slept, but played with the device until the battery ran out. Then, they come to see me with concerns about speech delays and no eye contact.”
Like many healthcare professionals around the world, she’s undoubtedly worried.
In fact, preliminary findings from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study revealed significant differences in the brains of children who had more than seven hours of screen time a day. It looked at over 11,000 nine- to 10-year-olds in the United States.
The study found that kids who had just more than two hours a day of screen time scored lower on tests of language and thinking skills.
“Children are getting more screen time and at earlier ages in recent years. All health professionals around the world are very concerned about the pervasive use of screen time in the life of very young children,” says Dr Kiing.
In April 2019, the World Health Organization released guidelines cautioning the overuse of sedentary screen time in young kids and the importance of bringing back active play time.
It advises kids between two and five not to spend more than an hour a day plonked in front of a screen. Babies and tots under two should not be exposed to electronic screens.
“The guidelines are recommended not because young children really need screen time, but because it is not possible to tell parents not to give young kids any screen time,” Dr Kiing says.
“Minimise screen time by engaging your child in realtime activities like play and conversation. Our kids really need to get active,”
But what if you can’t get your kid to go offline? Try these ideas from the experts to help him develop healthier digital habits.
Walk the talk
There’s no way around this. Parents and caregivers will need to walk the talk and be good digital role models, experts say.
In his research on media habits of Singapore children, Dr Jiow Hee Jhee found that excessive media use among parents is one of the top reasons why children here are so plugged in.
This influences their children to follow suit, says Dr Jiow, assistant professor and programme director of Singapore Institute of Technology and a member of the Media Literacy Council.
Dr Kiing adds: “Children learn by example and the best example for them is to see their parents use devices judiciously. For example, not at the dinner table and creating screen-free zones at home.”
Delay that first personal device
Most kids here get their first Internetconnected device at an average age of eight – the youngest in the world to go online, according to a new survey by Google. The global average is 10 years old.
If you are thinking of getting your kid his first mobile phone or device, wait until he establishes good digital habits. You may do this step-by-step, gradually, instead of giving full access immediately.
For instance, when Dr Jiow’s eldest daughter received her first smartphone at 11, he got her to sign a “Smart Device Ownership” contract.
It stated a list of usage guidelines, as well as his expectations of her mobile phone use.
“When I saw her proving to be a responsible media user, we gradually migrated to Version Two of the contract. By the third version, she was allowed to be on social media like Instagram,” explains Dr Jiow, 47, who has four kids aged eight to 15.
His daughter is no longer on the contract.
“What I found amazing was how she deleted Instagram from her phone on her own at one point when she felt it was distracting her from her studies – that shows her maturity in media usage,” he says.
Make active play a priority
The WHO recommends three hours of play for young children. Take your child to the playground for at least an hour a day, says Dr Kiing.
Dr Jiow got his kids started on sports and outdoor activities from a young age so that digital media does not have a strong hold on them.
“WHO’s recommendations on play time are incredibly important. Our kids really need to be out in the playgrounds for another hour after school ends,” Dr Kiing says.
“It’s better for their vision, motor coordination and social engagement. We have plenty of lovely playgrounds in Singapore, which are under-utilised,” she adds.
Take screen time out of meal time
While you may not be able to eliminate screen time, you can enforce screen-free timings.
When kids are accustomed to eating with a screen in front of them, they learn to eat by distraction, Dr Kiing says.
“Over time, you will find that it takes longer and longer for them to finish a meal. I’ve had families whose children take an hour to finish a meal in front of the screen,” she says.
“Children need to understand that eating is a social and enjoyable activity. The best way to do this is to eat with your children at mealtimes, wherever possible, so they imitate what we do,” she adds.
Set up a screen-free zone/ room at home
Carving out a tech-free zone will give your kid and your family a much-needed media break. This could be anywhere in your home, the bedroom, a cosy corner or dining area, Dr Jiow says.
If you need some entertainment, fill it with low-tech items like books and board games.
Consider a charging zone. This is the place where all mobile devices are charged overnight – that includes your screens, too – so that everyone is not glued to their screens through the night.
Do not leave your kid with the digital sitter
Make sure you or an adult sits next to your two-year-old when she has screen time; your role is to help her make sense of what she is viewing, Dr Kiing says.
If caregivers are tied up with chores, use a play yard and fill it with safe-age appropriate toys to occupy the child. Dr Kiing advises using a play yard before the child is mobile so that she gets used to it.
Even if your child is older and screen time use is inevitable, say for school activities, homework or research, parent’s supervision is still important, experts say.
Turn off the TV
Leaving the television on in the background is just as as bad.
Research shows that background television is linked with delays when kids are exposed too young, and their quality of play is also poorer, Dr Kiing shares.
TURN THESE FEATURES OFF
Some online features are designed to keep users hooked, says According to Common Sense Media, a non-profit group that provides advice and tools on media and technology.
Turn off the following key features. You can usually find them in your device or account settings.
• Push and app notifications
• In-app purchases
WHY YOUR KID HAS AN IPAD TANTRUM
Why does your kid throw a tantrum when you take his iPad away?
It is much harder for a young child to disengage from a screen device than any other toy or book, says child development expert Dr Jennifer Kiing from NUH.
Apps that have fast-moving or changing sounds and images tend to keep your kid engaged for longer.
“A developing brain is programmed to seek out sounds, visual images and stay locked onto the source of this, especially if the images and sounds change frequently,” Dr Kiing explains.
A young brain will stare at a screen which produces sound and moving images because it causes a dopamine (feel-good chemicals) release in the brain, and this is associated with reward.
“The brain is chemically rewarded for looking at the screen, which results in ‘addictive’ behaviours.”