Year of Giving Up the Screen-time Struggle

Year of Giving Up the Screen-time Struggle

Some parents find it extremely challenging to manage their children’s screen time. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO


DEC 18, 2022
Venessa Lee


This was the year more children were glued to devices – some for six to 10 hours a day – and their parents threw in the towel trying to restrict their screen time.

Anne, who declines to use her real name, is one such frustrated parent. Limiting her 10-year-old son’s screen time has been “a losing battle”, driving her to tears, says the educator in her 50s.

In recent years, her son has spent two to six hours a day on screens – doing research for his homework, working on school assignments on the Education Ministry’s Student Learning Space (SLS) platform, attending online tuition and enrichment classes, gaming and watching YouTube videos.

During the school holidays, his screen time has increased, with more movie-watching online and extra tuition classes to prepare for the upcoming school year.

Pandemic social distancing measures fuelled a spike in online activities, including remote learning for schoolchildren, but Anne says: “We need to stop talking about Covid-19 as a factor in the increase in screen use because it will lull us into a false sense of security, thinking things will improve when Covid-19 goes away.”

Anne attributes a large part of her son’s screen use to the societal “obsession” with academic performance and the perceived need to have tuition to keep up. Online tuition also saves time, compared with having to commute for face-to-face lessons, she says. Her son has online Chinese tuition twice a week for two hours each session, and several sessions of Mathematics and English booster tuition in the weeks leading up to tests and examinations.

She admits that she sometimes still screams at the boy when he is playing online games. “Most people probably don’t worry about their children clocking three to five hours of screen time because they have become numb to it. It has become normalised, but that does not make it right. This is why myopia rates are not getting better,” says Anne, whose son has been short-sighted since kindergarten. Singapore has one of the world’s highest rates of myopia. Contributing factors include a lack of outdoor play and close work on screens.

How did parents get here, to a state of semi-resignation in 2022?

It certainly did not happen overnight, says Mr Jazon Ho, a parenting and marriage coach at Fei Yue Community Services, who has counselled many “helpless and frustrated” parents of children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers. Many parents coaxed their three-year-olds to eat by plonking them in front of a tablet to distract them, then fount it hard to curb the child’s tantrums when the device was taken away, he notes.

Or they gave their tweens a smartphone after the Primary School Leaving Examination, without setting any rules regarding its use. Some teens then “raised voices and banged tables” when their parents attempted to confiscate their phones after excessive use, says Mr Ho, recounting how one even ran away from home when deprived of his device.

“The success rate of parents who try to set boundaries can be pretty low,” he adds. Such lack of success in setting limits can be due to factors such as parents’ inconsistent implementation of rules regarding screen use over the years.

Many parents are also confused regarding how much screen time children should have. Mr Shaun Liu, a trainer in Morning Star Community Services’ family wellness division, says: “Parents are not sure what a suitable amount of screen time is. They also wonder what else children can do to occupy their time. As children have more school-related work on digital devices, parents cannot constantly monitor their children’s screen use, either. Parents are afraid that limiting screen time will affect the child’s schoolwork.”

In 2022, several studies also emerged to show that screen time, though much afeared by parents worldwide, has benefits. A large-scale American study recently published in medical journal Jama Network Open indicated that playing video games may help children with both cognition and impulse control.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, a global authority, estimates that children are now spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices. Screen time during the pandemic increased the most among primary schoolchildren, according to the first global review of research reported in June. Children aged between six and 10 recorded the largest increases, of 83 minutes a day. Next it was adults, with 58 minutes, and adolescents aged 11 to 17, with 55 minutes.

The rise in screen time was associated with poorer diets in children, poor eye health, declining mental health – including anxiety – and problematic behaviour such as aggression, irritability and increased tantrums.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of screen media, other than video-chatting, for children younger than 18 months. For children older than two years, parents are advised to limit media to an hour a day of high-quality programming.

The Singapore Integrated 24-Hour Activity Guidelines for Children and Adolescents recommends that young people aged seven to 18 “limit recreational screen time as much as possible”.

The recommendations stem from international guidelines and a local survey conducted by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

The toughest part for parents, many of whom now live online too, is walking the talk and managing their own screen time, says Ms Carol Loi, founder and principal consultant at Village Consultancy, which provides digital literacy education. After all, they have to be good role models to hold the line against excessive device use.

But after three years of the pandemic, which seems to be in retreat worldwide, experts note 2022 marked a new normal, compelling more families to place less emphasis on the actual amount of screen time and more on the content of it.

Mr Shem Yao, head of parenting at Touch Community Services, says millennial parents are already focusing more on “curating online content” for their kids.

For example, is their screen time being used for chatting and socialising, shopping, gaming, school work, research or learning? Are they only consuming media content or are they also creating creative content? And are their relationships online, at home and in school healthy?

Ms Loi adds: “The pandemic shifted everyone across society to be more comfortable with our online lives, contributing to the reliance on devices and screens in everyday living.” As such, she urges parents to “look beyond screen time and take a larger perspective to see how the child is developing holistically and adjust accordingly.”


This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on 18 December 2022

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