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How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

Your little one is a pro at educational apps. Still, doctors and educators say this isn’t necessarily an achievement you should applaud.


Hubby and I are curled up in bed, Candy Crush-ing our way to the next stage. Occasionally, I look up to check on my girls.

My eight-year-old’s finger is busy at work, swiping her tablet screen. Sprawled on the floor beside her, my 20-month-old is enthralled by the lights and sounds from an educational app I downloaded. Our plugged-in session is hardly an unusual family activity these days. After all, the recent boom in touchscreen devices has drastically changed childhood.

In fact, a new US study has found that even babies as young as six months old are now exposed to mobile media. Over a third of babies under the age of one have used a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet, child development researcher Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek from the Department of Psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia points out to Young Parents in a phone interview.

By the age of two, most of them would have gotten their hands on one, according to the study findings, which were presented at the Paediatric Academic Societies’ annual meeting in April. There are no official local statistics on Singapore children using mobile technology. But consider this: Singapore is currently the world’s top smartphone user, according to a 2014 survey released by Google across 46 countries.

“I would imagine that this might be a common phenomenon in Singapore, with Singaporeans being even more mobile and text-savvy,” notes Prof Hirsh-Pasek, whose research focuses on early language development and infant cognition.

The Google survey found that 85 per cent of Singaporeans use a smartphone, with Americans trailing at 57 per cent.  Singaporeans also use an average of 3.3 devices each – one of the highest rates in the world.

Now that digital mobile devices are within arm’s reach, what does this mean for your kids? Research has clearly shown that TV is bad for young children. But not much is currently known about how touchscreen use affects their development.

One thing’s for sure, though: a newborn’s brain triples in size in the first three years of her life. What your baby experiences early in life shapes her adult brain, says Dr Jennifer Kiing, senior consultant at the division of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at National University Hospital.


Take back the iPad

For the young brain to develop well, Dr Kiing firmly believes there should be no place for electronic devices – TV, smartphones or tablets – in the life of a child under the age of three. “Any screen time is considered overexposure for the young brain,” warns Dr Kiing.

“A toddler who knows how to swipe the device and enter a four-digit password is not a genius. The child is in trouble and at risk of speech delay, attention and cognitive deficits if screen time is not kept in check.” Besides, apps marketed as “educational” have never been proven to benefit children under the age of two, adds Dr Kiing.

Fiona Walker, chief executive officer and principal of schools at Julia Gabriel Education, observes that the “first wave” of its negative effects may already be seen in some pre-nursery children across her schools.

“Our teachers have informal chats with the children before they are enrolled to gauge their level of conversational skills. Across all centres, we’ve found this year’s pre-nursery children to be less chatty. There was a sense that they were not as comfortable expressing themselves as the earlier cohorts,” says Fiona.

Is it a coincidence that the iPad was unveiled just five years ago in 2010? Fiona points out these pre-nursery children, who are turning three this year, would probably have been exposed to touchscreen devices for much of their lives.

If screen time is not controlled for babies and very young children, it could be detrimental to their overall development in the long run. “I believe it might eventually impact all levels of their development, not just in the area of language. For instance, babies who are always parked in front of a tablet might start crawling and walking later because they do not have ample opportunities to explore their surroundings physically,” says Fiona.

But not everyone shares the same pessimistic view. Prof Hirsh-Pasek, for example, feels there is room for negotiation. “I wouldn’t call (digital media) the devil, but parents should certainly keep a vigilant eye on what their kids are doing on these devices,” she says. “Rather than give parents an ultimatum, we should focus on what our kids are doing or watching on digital media.”


Focus on content

Research has shown that what children watch and how they watch it is more important than how much they watch, says Dr Kiing. “Having said this, young children need an adult to help them make sense of what they watch to reduce any harmful effects from screen time,” she says.

Dr Kiing shares a 2009 study in Acta Paediatrica which looked at babies aged seven to 16 months. For every hour they watched baby DVDs, they picked up six to eight fewer words. “We know that children can imitate what is seen on TV, but they cannot acquire language simply by watching it on screen,” she says.


What about learning apps, then?

In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest this May, Prof Hirsh-Pasek and a team of researchers looked at apps classified as “educational” and developed for touch-screen use. The apps are marketed for babies and kids up to eight years old.

The researchers found that many of the so-called “educational” apps in the Apple app store are “simply digital worksheets, games, and puzzles” designed without considering how children actually learn. But they note that well-designed educational apps may help promote “active, engaged, meaningful, and socially-interactive learning” in kids.The only problem is, how do you distinguish the real McCoys?


She needs you

Still, even the best-designed learning app can never replace you. “It is from human interaction and conversation that children learn and build social skills that help them become polite, nice and kind human beings,” says Prof Hirsh-Pasek. “Your child learns the best when she is in a meaningful, nurturing relationship with a caregiver  who speaks and plays with her. Nothing is going to be better than that,” adds Dr Kiing. And that includes her teachers.

New research has found that children who are close to their teachers during their early years develop stronger language skills, says Emelia Prayogo, director of Pedagogy at Etonhouse International Education Group. The bottom line, concludes Prof Hirsh- Pasek, is that you should never outsource parenting or education to these devices.

Fiona says: “It’s not that these devices are bad but, rather, it’s about what they are replacing in our kids’ childhoods. What would your child be doing if he wasn’t plugged in? In the past eight months, I’ve seen the same toddler at a coffee joint every morning, but I’ve never seen him speak. He is always on an iPad while his caregiver feeds him. Imagine if this happens every single day for the next few years; it would rob him of the opportunity to learn,” she adds.

Even so, frazzled parents who need the occasional downtime shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. Instead of going to extremes, treat screen time like “dessert”, says Prof Hirsh-Pasek. “We live in a world of digital candy and it would be quite impossible to avoid all digital media. Sometimes, we give kids dessert to keep them quiet for a while, but you’ll be an irresponsible parent to replace your child’s entire meal with dessert,” she quips.



1. Replace screen time with a fun activity like a bedtime story, a walk outdoors or a longer bath-time.

2. Give and take instead of withholding it completely. For instance, if you’ve always given your child the iPad at mealtimes, try offering some screen time only after the meal.

3. Make it a shared activity and set a time limit. One of the biggest dangers with touchscreen time is that it can go on infinitely. Playing alongside your child will ensure there’s an end to her session.


More good reasons to limit screen time. 


By Eveline Gan, Young Parents, July 2015

Photo: 123rf.com

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