The computer can teach, occupy, liberate. But it can also transform your child into a zombie…


So, your 2-year-old loves dressing up as Batman, adores books, Mega Bloks and Play-Doh. But he also covets your iPad. Left unattended, he makes a beeline for it, swipes and — woo hoo! — there's Buzz Lightyear, totally under his control, throwing balls at aliens. Things get even better for your 4-year-old sweetie. As well as playing the counting apps, she can access YouTube for all her Disney Junior faves. Welcome to preschool paradise.

When kids have a tablet...

With a tap of a sticky finger, children's interaction with mobile touch-screen devices is within reach. And, for us, the results are equally magical. There’s suddenly a window to cook, tidy and have a shower without the risk of interruptions. Sibling spats dissolve in an instant and peace is restored (as long as they can both see the screen).

The power of touchscreens is such that studies suggest preschoolers are spending more time on these than playing with traditional toys. A recent survey revealed that half of all parents allow their babies to play on tablets or smartphones, and one in seven let them use the devices for four or more hours a day.

As tech newcomers ourselves, it’s hard not to feel a stab of pride when your toddler (who can’t take himself off to the loo, let alone use a knife and fork) navigates your iPad more efficiently than you can. But we also feel uneasy about the sneaky way the digital universe is taking over the real world, especially after news that a 4-year-old girl was recently diagnosed as an iPad addict when she suffered withdrawal symptoms.

“If my son is playing on the iPad when my husband walks in after a day at work, he doesn’t even look up,” says Rose Chia, 32, mum to Theodore, 3. “That can’t be right, can it?”

Then there’s Sarah Koh, 36, mum to Timmy, 4 months, and Zachary, 3, who gives her early-rising tot unfettered access to her iPad, so that she can enjoy an extra hour’s sleep. “I have a new baby and the iPad has been a lifesaver,” she says. “I let Zach play on it and it holds his attention, so I can get on with what needs to be done.”


Interacting with kids digitally

Many of us feel guilty about how screen time gets us through rainy weekends, and it can feel like this is yet another stick for modern mums to beat ourselves with. But is it really that awful?

“As with all technology, there are good things and bad things about tablets,” says Dr Nicola Yuill, who heads the University of Sussex Chat Lab, which aims to understand how technology can help children. “They’re an accessible way for children to use technology, however, I do understand parental concerns about their isolating nature.”

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Still, there’s a difference between a 1-year-old who’s spending all his time on mum’s phone and the preschooler who is unwinding for half an hour on an educational app after a busy day at nursery. Either way, the news you might not want to hear is that the best way to make use of technology is to do it together.

Dr Yuill is impressed by digital books, which are designed for a shared experience, “Many are like paper books, but better. Parents can interact with their children to bring the story to life, so they can talk about what they see.”

But where does that leave that precious chunk of time when you install your child on the sofa with his favourite app and vanish? The fact is, it's fine to run off and make yourself a cuppa, as long as you remember to pop back and join in, as this kind of parental contribution can boost the benefits of technology.

Learning through creative play

But heed this note of caution. Educational psychologist Dr Kairen Cullen points out, “Children develop the concentration they need for learning through creative play and, if these devices drown that out, then that’s potentially a problem. Playing on the iPad inevitably comes at the expense of other activities, such as drawing.”

It's all to do with brain development, particularly during your baby's first two years. “Toddlers need to upload information about the real world,” says child-health expert Dr Aric Sigman. “They need to physically feel and explore things to gain an understanding of what it is. If they are given too much screen technology too young, it can corrupt this process and hamper their ability to conceptualise problems.”

However, there's no harm in some screen time. “Playing a phonics app, for example, is more interactive than watching TV, which is a passive activity,” says Dr Yuill. So, it’s not all bad. And, if your toddler’s always peering up at his older sister’s screen, you don't have to feel more guilt. “Sitting alongside a sibling means the children are interacting while playing with the device,” she says. “That's why games for kids are a great idea.”

Of course, it depends on what they’re playing. “They don't have to be educational games, but they do need to be high quality — the best apps don’t dictate how kids play, but let them use their imagination," notes Lisa Guernsey, author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media Affects Your Young Child.

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Also take into account what else you’ve done that day. If you’ve spent time at the park or hung out with friends, then 20 minutes of tablet time isn’t a bad thing.

Deep down, we all know that leaving a toddler to an iPad with games isn’t the best parenting move. Accepting that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace what screens have to offer. “You just have to listen to that voice that tells you when it’s time to turn off,” Dr Cullen says. “Make the alternative attractive, something you know your child will enjoy, such as painting or reading — then make sure you act on it.”

Even if it provokes an almighty meltdown.

Still unsure how you can raise a techie?

Help Your Children Take Charge of Their Future

As technology continues to play a growing role in our lives, it’s imperative that we teach our children to harness the power of tech to take charge of their future. How about making a trip to SMARTgenAsia?

SMARTgen Asia is the first of its kind event in the region to experience the coolest technology that will shape the way you live, work and play. It will be hosting a 2-day power-packed inspiring seminar for youths and parents to learn from Singapore’s top tech movers and shakers who will not only share the secrets of their success, but how they challenge conventional wisdom.

Also at the event are panel discussions aimed at motivating and inspiring youths and parents to tackle today’s biggest topics revolving around innovation, success, technology and entrepreneurship.

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