Children using electronic gadgets like smartphones at a younger age are increasingly exposed to certain social and health risks that come with it.
Parents, however, do not fully understand the negative effects of using such devices. Many also do not teach their children how to use them properly.
These preliminary findings are part of a new study led by Dr Nirmala Karuppiah from the National Institute of Education's (NIE) early childhood and special education academic group.
The study is believed to be the first that looks at how pre-schoolers in Singapore use gadgets such as computers, tablets and smartphones. Current research in this area deals mostly with primary school children and youth, said Dr Karuppiah.
The study, which is funded by the Health Promotion Board and NIE, was presented yesterday at the Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference. Organised by NIE, the three-day biennial event, which closes today, attracted about 1,700 educators.
Researchers of the NIE study visited the homes and schools of 60 children from five pre-schools last year to observe their computer habits. There was an equal mix of boys and girls, aged five and six years old.
Their actions were captured on video during observation sessions in their homes and schools, with each lasting about an hour.
Interviews with the children, their parents and teachers were also conducted.
The study found that 65 per cent of the children started playing with electronic devices before they turned three.
Most of the children - 95 per cent - played video and simulation games on the devices. Half of them said they used them to play educational games such as spelling quizzes. Other uses include surfing the Internet and social networking.
Few parents, however, supervised their children in how they used these devices.
Of the 60 parents interviewed, only 30 per cent had rules on how much "computer time" their children were allowed. The remaining gave their children free rein to use devices of any kind.
"In the past, parents allowed their children to use computers only when they were older," said Dr Karuppiah. "Now, (the children) are given all sorts of gadgets at a younger age."
Some 85 per cent of the parents felt their children benefited from using the gadgets, as they saw them becoming more IT-savvy.
Many, however, were not aware of the risks involved in the misuse and excessive use of these devices, said Dr Karuppiah.
She pointed out health risks such as poor sitting postures and children straining their eyes by sitting in front of and staring at electronic screens for too long.
There are also social and emotional risks like gaming addiction and cyber-bullying, which could lead to serious consequences. Children could pick up negative habits like being violent, or face problems in socialising with peers.
"Some children tell us they skip meals or eat faster so that they can finish their game, and go on to the next level," she said. "These problems worsen later on in the primary schooling years, but such habits may be formed when they're younger. So, we need to trace back to see where they first start."
Dr Karuppiah hopes that the study can spark further research in this area, and its findings can be used to develop preventive programmes for pre-schoolers.
"Computers, iPhones and iPads are here to stay so we hope to educate parents on the dangers involved in the misuse and excessive use of them," she said.
The final findings of the study will be made known this year.
Housewife Diane Wee, 38, agreed with the study's findings. She used to allow her two-year- old daughter Sarah, now five, to play alphabet games and jigsaw puzzles on her iPad. Within six months, things got out of hand.
"She had no self-control and threw tantrums when I took the iPad away from her. So I stopped letting her play with it at all."
Added Ms Wee: "Parents who are increasingly attached to their devices will not see anything wrong with their children using them."