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Unplugging your kids from the digital world

One way to help them find the right balance is to go device-free yourself during family time

Deep in thought, I failed to notice the persistent drumming of little fingers on my thigh.

"Put... down... your phone," sputtered my ruddy-cheeked, then 20-month-old toddler, tightly clutching her Dr Seuss' Mr Brown Can Moo board-book.

My husband shot me - and my smartphone - a pointed glance.

I brandished the screen, displaying a half-composed e-mail. "This is for work," I mumbled defensively. "Not like I am on social media." (Just in case it looked like I was watching amusing video parodies of global political figures. Again.)

Instinctively, of course, I grasped the point. It was precious family time on a Sunday evening, and we had set out to have fun and bond with our children - device-free.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

That one of my toddler's first complete sentences - complete with a possessive adjective - was about my smartphone also delivered food for thought.

It is not that screen time pervades our family life, I rationalised.

My three children, now in kindergarten and nursery, neither watched television nor played with personal digital devices the first two years of their lives. The screen embargo was lifted temporarily on only two occasions: for the National Day Parade live telecast and for FaceTime when my husband travelled abroad.

Our television set was a white elephant. I consider this a feat, given how we used to eagerly catch the latest programmes in our once child-free life. (Game Of Thrones in recent years? BBC's Sherlock? Forget it.)

But I suppose these efforts were well worth it. We enjoyed our children climbing onto our laps and clamouring to be read to, embarking on "good old-fashioned" pursuits like climbing at the playgrounds, doodling, dancing and simply goofing around - activities we loved for growing their imaginations.

I high-fived my husband when my elder twins hit the age of two, before which the American Academy of Paediatrics recommended no screen exposure (although this guideline has recently been changed to 18 months).

My husband and I recognise we have a long way to go with regard to parenting in a digital age. And we both agree that parental influence and role modelling are a good start, and we should begin the way we mean to go... But we have grand plans to consciously incorporate tech-free family time for communication and bonding. Denise Lim

"We made it," I cried, until it sank in that if we wanted to effectively limit screen exposure for our youngest, delaying the introduction of television for another year or two for the elder ones would really help. Today, my brood watches a curated selection of programmes on television or YouTube, twice a week.

Much has been discussed about limiting screen exposure for young children. But as my children grow older, I am keenly aware that theirs is a generation of digital natives, and digital abstinence is clearly unsustainable in the long run.

Technology is set to be integral in their lives, even livelihoods, as some would argue. I believe that children who are equipped to use digital media wisely can plug critical gaps, discover new frontiers and - not to sound trite - even change the world.

But if technology is pivotal in their lives, how do our children learn to use it in moderation, and find a balance between the real and virtual worlds?

Or as a cousin wondered that day: "How do we get our children to have a healthy screen and media diet in future, if everyone around is glued to devices?"

As we observe the homogeneous spectacle of heads bent down and eyes staring at screens - our own included - I am contemplating the effects of parents modelling healthy screen and media usage for our children. Over Chinese New Year, aunties were badgering children and teenagers to lay down their smartphones and talk to relatives - a common sight, I am sure, in many homes during the festive season.

"Please," quipped a friend. "At my side, aunties were also staring at their screens, watching Korean dramas."

Unplugging from the smartphone, even for adults, has become a challenge in this swiftly changing world of technology.

A generation ago, when my mother wanted to read the newspaper, snap a picture or pen something in her calendar, she reached for three different objects.

Today, my smartphone embodies all these functions and more. And my children witness me grabbing it regularly. In December, I was intrigued to read a report by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organisation headquartered in San Francisco, which suggested that parents who wanted kids off their smartphones and back into the real world could first consider taking stock of their own technology habits.

The study, which surveyed 1,700 parents of tweens and teens, showed that parents spent a whopping nine hours and 20 minutes with screen media daily (with work accounting for only 11/2 hours). Meanwhile, parents were also troubled about their children's social media use, online activities and potential technology addiction.

The survey was conducted in the United States. But I suspect the results might not be too vastly different in highly connected and digitally literate Singapore.

Perhaps, as a Washington Post headline put it bluntly, parents who want their children off their phones could look in the mirror first.

Mr James Steyer, executive director of Common Sense Media, said the point of the study was not to guilt-trip parents but to get them thinking and, perhaps, cut back a little.

I stand contrite and, if not yet corrected, at least highly aware.

My husband and I recognise we have a long way to go with regard to parenting in a digital age. And we both agree that parental influence and role modelling are a good start, and we should begin the way we mean to go. Walk the talk, as they say, before we, well, talk the talk - and nagging our future teenagers to get off their phones. Inevitably, we will continue to work using our devices and unwind with various, often frivolous, apps.

But we have grand plans to consciously incorporate tech-free family time for communication and bonding. (Gulp.) They include a no-device rule, for ourselves, during family meals.

Focusing on and connecting with those in front of us, is, perhaps, signalling that staring into a virtual world of images both fake and real can sometimes pilfer attention from what matters.

I realise the importance of our children seeing us connecting with friends face to face, rather than just virtually. WhatsApp was a lifeline for me in my (overwhelming and sometimes isolating) early parenting days, letting me connect with like-minded parents and even forge new friendships. But I am reminded that meeting to catch up in the real world is also important.

Friends who are parents of older children tell us unanimously to delay the introduction of personal digital devices and to regulate screen usage thereafter. Children will have no problems mastering them later, they say.

What's important at this juncture, experts add, is to introduce various non-tech pursuits, such as outdoor and physical activities, to your kids and show them there is life outside the digital universe, which will no doubt be alluring and seductive.

That evening, I scooped my child onto my lap and read her the wacky book of onomatopoeic sounds by Dr Seuss. The older children, laughing boisterously, somersaulted tirelessly on the play-mat.

My smartphone lay out of sight on my bedside table for the rest of the evening, and I still completed my work (and, of course, watched two hilarious video clips) that night after the kids were carted off to bed.

It felt pretty good, I have to say.

•Denise Lim, a freelance columnist, was formerly a communications specialist with a financial institution.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Unplugging your kids from the digital world'. Print Edition | Subscribe