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Picking the right content for kids

Letting them watch Netflix or play apps can be great for family bonding

Back in the mid-2000s, the one channel that every parent needed to get for their pre-school kids was Playhouse Disney. So when my eldest daughter (now 14) turned three in 2005, I forked out an extra $4.20 per month on top of my regular StarHub cable TV subscription to get the wonderful channel that had great programming created exclusively for kids from three to eight.

Over the years and right up to about 2011 when my second daughter turned six, Playhouse Disney was constantly streaming in the Oo family's living room.

Together with my kids, I discovered wonderful new cartoons which I never knew existed. The flying red rocket ship of Little Einsteins zooming to the sounds of Beethoven and the boundless energy of helpful Handy Manny and his talking box of tools were two family favourites that stood the test of time.

Playhouse Disney was my best friend. It played babysitter when I ran out of energy to hide from my seeking girls or when I needed alone time to clear work at home or play a few levels of Diablo III.

But all that changed in 2012, when I discovered the world of Netflix. It brought about a new way of watching TV - no ads, no channels to surf and no waiting for your favourite show to start.

You don't have to check the programme guide to figure out what time Barney the purple dinosaur was screening because all of the content in Netflix is available at your beck and call. You don't have to wait for the download to complete, because the video-on-demand streams immediately in broadband-friendly Singapore and you can even fast-forward to your favourite scene.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

For the child, discovering and watching his or her favourite cartoon characters on Netflix is a breeze. When set to kids' mode, the programme turns on its child-friendly settings where adult content is blocked and a huge top menu bar lets the child scroll through images of the cartoon characters. It's just a simple case of using the remote control to swipe through the entire carousel of characters and select the one that piques their interest.

In my view, watching TV is not bad in itself. In fact, I believe many of these shows have helped my children learn English.

So when my youngest child was born in 2011, I decided I would cut the pay-TV cord and rely on Netflix and a bunch of other streaming sites such as Hulu and Amazon Instant Video to get the family's entertainment fix. It was tough in those days because I had to jump through hoops to be able to view the content using VPN services.

Netflix finally launched here last month, but I am sticking to my Netflix US account because the local version does not have the bulk of my children's favourite shows, such as Handy Manny, Little Einsteins, Special Agent Oso, Barney and Daniel Tiger.

Unfortunately, I find myself saddled with a new problem these days - getting my five-year-old to stop watching Netflix and do something else other than watch endless hours of Handy Manny, Daniel Tiger and the friendly Barney.

I have been feeling guilty about this because I remember the guidelines laid down by the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) more than 15 years ago, which recommend that children under two years should not have any screen time, while those above two should be limited to just two hours a day.

I have always felt that some of the kids' programmes were educational for my children. I grew up as a kid in Kuala Lumpur watching something called The Electric Company, which taught phonetics and grammar using songs and sketches. The modern-day equivalent is Sesame Street.

I think Little Einsteins is great for pre-schoolers because it introduces them to music.

Interestingly, a 2001 study from the United States found that children aged three to five who watched Sesame Street had larger vocabularies in high school than those who watched other television programming, or even no television at all. The effect could not be explained by gender, family size or parents' education levels.

While doing research for this article, I discovered to my amazement that the AAP is now rethinking its previous guidelines and aims to have a new and more substantive set of guidelines later this year. It even admitted that technology moves faster than science can study it, so the AAP is perpetually behind in its advice and recommendations.

In my view, watching TV is not bad in itself. In fact, I believe many of these shows have helped my children learn English. They also inculcate good habits, especially when the kids are between two and four, when they refuse to do things like brush their teeth or go to school.

In the end, I think it is not about whether you should let your kids watch Netflix or TV or play apps on the iPad, but a question of how much and, more importantly, of curating and selecting the right content for your child. Watching with them and playing with them is great for family bonding and guiding them along.

Daniel Tiger has a catchy song which goes like this: "Clothes on, eat breakfast, brush teeth, put on shoes and go to school." Trust me, this really worked for me and I have used the song many times during the previous two years. That's why Daniel Tiger is also my best friend.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Picking the right content for kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe