Low-tech toys are better for young kids: Experts

Too much early exposure to gadgets could harm, hamper development: Experts

Excessive use of touchscreen devices like tablets and smartphones can hamper a child's development, lead to poor eyesight or even addiction, a local study has found.

In fact, Professor Marjory Ebbeck reckons a child is better off playing with "low-tech" toys such as building blocks.

These basic play tools help children develop motor skills that may be compromised as they become more adept with technology at a younger age, said the director of the Seed Institute's Centre of Research and Best Practices.

The institute, which is under the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), runs early childhood education diploma and degree courses.

The new study is based on data collected by Prof Ebbeck and five researchers between May and July last year.

About 1,058 parents with children under seven years old, and a total of 1,542 kids were involved in the study.

It found that 66 per cent of children aged two and below were well acquainted with gadgets, like smartphones and touchscreen tablets. But about seven in 10 parents indicated vision deterioration in their children as the top adverse side effect.

More than half cited behaviour consistent with addiction, after they saw their kids throwing tantrums when the devices were taken away.

About six in 10 parents surveyed, however, believe that using gadgets help develop their children's motor skills.

But smartphones are "adults' devices, not children's toys", said Prof Ebbeck, who retired from the University of South Australia in 2009.

She said "digital play" cannot substitute for dramatic, concrete and outdoor play - which are key to a child's holistic growth.

For instance, running and climbing strengthen their gross motor skills, involving the use of bigger muscles like those in the legs, she said.

"Children develop most cognitively through imaginative play, like role-playing," she added, and they need freedom to "explore, experiment and discover", instead of being inhibited by gadgets because "everything is set, controlled for them".

Children who use gadgets like tablets and smartphones should be closely supervised, said the professor. But parents should avoid exposing children under the age of two to the devices as there is no value in such "screen exposure" for infants and toddlers.

Prof Ebbeck will be talking about her 50 years of early childhood expertise in a series of seminars organised by Seed Institute, starting next month. Parents and teachers will also learn about the latest findings from the study.

Other early childhood experts The Sunday Times spoke to, like Dr Khoo Kim Choo who runs the Preschool for Multiple Intelligences, agree with Prof Ebbeck.

"Children must interact with the real world in their early years," said Dr Khoo. "The world has lots more to offer to them. They need to learn about nature and what's around them."

Early childhood consultant Philip Koh said socio-emotional and language skills cannot be learnt from a gadget but some games and drawing apps, though, can benefit children's learning as they boost creativity.

SIM University's head of early childhood education Theresa Lu said that devices can be extra learning tools "when used in purposeful, meaningful and developmentally appropriate ways".

Views among parents on how much time their children should spend on touchscreen devices are mixed.

Sales manager Matthew Lee, 33, said he lets his son Raphael, play games, watch videos and read stories on them every day. The four-year-old has been using his parents' iPhones and iPads since he was two. "The reality is there's very little time for working parents who need some time to ourselves, so the iPhone helps to keep him occupied," said Mr Lee.

Mr Tan Siang Meng, however, limits the use of his iPad by his three-year-old daughter, Maitri, to half an hour daily. "I try not to use it as a baby-sitting tool, but it's easier said than done," said the 38-year-old civil servant.