Limit gadgets for kids

New guidelines say children aged two to five should spend just one hour a day watching TV or looking at electronic devices

Many parents already know, at least vaguely, that too much screen time is bad for young children's development.

What they may not realise is just how bad it is for little ones to be glued to the screens of TVs, smartphones or computers.

The authoritative American Academy of Pediatrics last month slashed its maximum recommended screen time for children aged two to five. The maximum recommended screen time went from two hours daily to one hour a day.

It also recommended that parents watch "high quality programming" with their children during this hour and that children younger than 18 months get zero screen time (the previous recommendation was that children below two years old should not get any screen time at all).

This new development should spur parents to take action, if they have not already done so.

Mrs Mandy Loh certainly has.

  • Screen-time tips

  • • Find activities that children can do on their own as well as those that allow for parent-child interaction, such as puzzles and building blocks.

    • Plan ahead and bring along toys, instead of an iPad, to keep your children engaged for long periods of time, such as when attending a wedding dinner.

    • Arrange routine activities for the whole family. For example, family members can set aside time daily to go to the park or have a picnic on weekends.

    • Once the schedule is set for children to have both physical and leisure activities, the need for screen time for both adults and children will naturally be reduced.

    • If the child's grandparents are his caregivers, consider the activities the grandparents enjoy doing (such as going to the wet market) and suggest that the grandparents do these activities with the child. Take toys and books to the grandparents' residence for the child.

    • If a domestic helper is the child's caregiver, set a routine for her and make it clear that the child is not allowed to watch TV. Offer alternatives or toys to the child, or ask the helper to take the child to a nearby playground every day.

  • • Information provided by parenting specialist Sarah Chua from Focus On The Family Singapore and Dr Yang Chien-Hui, senior lecturer at SIM University's School of Human Development and Social Services.

Her smartphone and laptop are password-protected so her two children cannot access the devices on their own.

The stay-at-home mum, 37, also limits screen time for Cristan, five, and Caris, two.

They get to watch about 1½ hours of TV a day after dinner while she does the dishes and other household chores.

Mrs Loh and her engineer husband, Mr Tim Loh, 37, are aware of the dangers of excessive screen time for young children, which include the risk of irregular sleep schedules and behavioural problems.

However, Mrs Loh, who blogs about parenting matters for the voluntary organisation I Love Children, says it would be challenging to adhere to these new guidelines when it comes to screen time.

"The children sometimes make a fuss when we switch off the TV and they're used to their evening routine," she says.

She is not alone. A local study published in 2013 suggests that many other parents in Singapore struggle with limiting screen time for their young children.

It found that 66 per cent of children aged two and younger were well-acquainted with gadgets such as smartphones and touchscreen tablets.

The data was collected by researchers including those from the Centre of Research and Best Practices at Singapore's Seed Institute, a pioneer in early childhood education training. The study indicated that excessive use of such devices can hamper a child's development and lead to poor eyesight, among other problems.

For Mrs Noeline Wong, 34, a part- time primary school teacher, organising activities such as playdates and enrolling her children in enrichment classes, such as art, swimming and tennis, has the added benefit of ensuring her four children's screen time is limited.

She and her husband Nicholas Wong, 35, who works in sales in the private banking industry, try to ensure that their children, aged one to eight, keep to about an hour of screen time a day.

They also try as far as possible to ensure the children view educational programmes and apps, such as watching Mandarin DVDs. She prefers them to draw, read or attempt puzzles to occupy themselves.

But the children sometimes manage to sneak a peek at the iPad Mrs Wong tries to keep hidden and she gets angry when they watch programmes she does not think are appropriate.

"I tell them to Google information and we watch movies like Zootopia together as a family,"she says.

Babies can't face TV when it is turned on

Ms Alicia Boo and Mr Daniel Chai allow their two older children some screen time, but not their babies. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

When Ms Alicia Boo and her husband are carrying their five-month- old twin sons, they make sure the infants are not facing the TV if it is turned on.

The parents are aware - and take seriously - paediatricians' recommendation of zero screen time for infants, as it can have negative effects on children's language development.

Her two older children - Ezra, six, and Ember, three - have a little more leeway.

To limit their screen time, the 33- year-old stay-at-home mum uses a timer which buzzes when Ezra and Ember have watched 15 minutes of YouTube videos on the iPad or smartphone.

This rule, as well as others such as no screen time during meals, is part of her strategy to educate her children about the appropriate use of media.

She and her husband, Mr Daniel Chai, 38, a project manager in a bank, generally allow Ezra and Ember 30 minutes of screen time a day.

They eschew violent cartoons for educational programmes and TV shows such as Wheel Of Fortune, which Ms Boo says can be useful for expanding the youngsters' vocabulary.

"Like other families, we struggle with screen time. The two older children will ask for it, especially Ember, who finds it captivating.

"We take the chance to educate them about making wise choices about the kinds of shows they watch," she says.

It's okay for a child to be bored

Mr Lim Choon Kiong and his wife Zeslyn Lim read that boredom can benefit children, so they stopped entertaining their son Isaac with electronic devices. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LIM CHOON KIONG

When finance manager Lim Choon Kiong's son, Isaac, was younger than two, he was not given any screen time on an iPad or a smartphone.

Mr Lim and his wife, general manager Zeslyn Lim, 37, had read that screen exposure had adverse health effects and felt that Isaac would not understand what he viewed anyway.

But Mr Lim gradually allowed Isaac, now three, to watch programmes such as Frozen, one of his favourite movies, and Peppa Pig cartoons and kids' music videos as he wanted the boy to learn vocabulary, the alphabet and numbers.

He also felt he had to keep his only child entertained.

Mr Lim, 37, says: "My wife and I were paranoid about keeping him occupied. We found ourselves letting screens be our babysitter."

The boy was usually allowed to watch those programmes during mealtimes since that made it easier for him to sit still and eat.

But eventually, his parents noticed he was getting restless more easily and clamoured for their smartphones frequently.

So when they came across an article earlier this year about how it was all right for children to be bored as it might spark their creativity, they went "cold turkey", says Mr Lim.

They endured Isaac's tantrums for the past six months, allowing him to watch TV for just half an hour a day.

Mr Lim now realises that "it would not be healthy in the long run if Isaac constantly needed to be entertained".

"Now, he'll talk and play with his toys. We realised that he's okay to be by himself."

Parents cut down on phone time too

Ms Noretta Jacob (with her husband Mohamad Roslee Sulaiman) encourages her daughter, Nur Laaiqah, to engage in sensory play instead of using electronic devices. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NORETTA JACOB

Ms Noretta Jacob's educational training and subsequent career in the pre-school sector has guided her screen-time choices for her four-year-old daughter.

The 33-year-old senior manager of a childcare centre is aware that excessive exposure to TV, tablets and smartphones can affect children's attention spans. So, she encourages her daughter, Nur Laaiqah Mohamad Roslee, to engage in more sensory activities such as playing with plasticine.

Such activities, which stimulate children's sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, boost the development of motor skills.

Nur Laaiqah plays with Play-Doh and masak-masak (Malay for play cooking) and draws and paints. She also prepares dinner with Ms Noretta, helping to cut carrots and add salt to the food.

The girl is not allowed to watch TV except for an hour or two during weekends, when she might sit with her mother to watch programmes such as My Little Pony on YouTube. Ms Noretta says such programmes contain lessons about friendship.

Ms Noretta, who is married to Mr Mohamad Roslee Sulaiman, a 34-year-old taxi driver, sees no need for an iPad for their family and does not install children's apps on her smartphone.

Nur Laaiqah, who has a toy telephone made from a wooden block, usually asks her mother for permission to use only the camera in her smartphone.

Used to having little screen time, the young girl has asked her mother to put down her smartphone when they are together.

"My own challenge is to stop using my phone in front of her," says Ms Noretta, who checks Facebook, WhatsApp and her work e-mail on her phone.

"I've cut down on my phone use and want to model good phone etiquette for her as well."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline Limit gadgets for kids. Subscribe