Do i Really Win?

i has taken the world by storm. Today there are few people who do not know what an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod is. And that does not preclude children under the age of eight. According to a recent US study, about half of children aged eight and below have access to a mobile device such as a smartphone, a video iPod, an iPad or other tablet. The October 2011 study of 1,384 parents by San Francisco-based Common Sense Media explained the findings, saying that the figures reflect the trend among adults, given that parents continually model such behaviour for their children.

This trend is not exclusive to online media. According to the survey, the television is still the main entertainer for a child. Results showed that children under the age of two tended to watch an average of 53 minutes a day of TV or DVDs, and about one-third of American children that age have TVs in their bedrooms.

When Sue and I first read the survey findings, it brought a certain feeling of dis-ease to us. In about one month, Z will be 17 months' old. And I cannot imagine my son watching TV for 53 minutes a day, nor can I imagine installing a TV in his bedroom!

Sue and I were also unsettled by the findings of another recent research study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The September 2011 qualitative study, of 60 four-year-olds, was published in the Pediatrics journal. It observed that watching fast-paced cartoons such as Spongebob Squarepants, even if for a few minutes, hinders abstract thinking, short-term memory and impulse control in pre-schoolers. While study authors say it's hard to conclude what aspects of the cartoon present such a negative impact, they suspect it could be due to the rapid pace of the show as well as its fantastical nature.

For the record, Z does watch TV. We sometimes screen various baby DVDs that have popular children's songs, Bible stories or educational elements. And our son does enjoy watching the colourful hand puppets that tell the Biblical story of David, as well as the animated children who sing about 'Old MacDonald's Farm". However, we make sure that he does not watch not more than 15 minutes of TV a day. Even then, Z does not watch TV everyday.

Some months back, our pediatrician actually recommended for Z to watch about 10 minutes of educational TV a day. We were then worried about Z's short attention span and his then lack of desire to read books. As a solution, our doctor shared that watching TV could help our son to improve his attention span. She made this suggestion in addition to asking us not to give up, and to persist in exposing Z to books. We subsequently decided to allow him to watch TV, while at the same time deciding that the television should not be Z's babysitter; nor he should not be among the 2-year-old TV addicts mentioned in the October survey!

It's a rather sad picture nowadays at restaurants; one that we are beginning to see more and more often. An entire family of four would be seated either waiting for the food or eating. The father would be surfing the Internet or checking email on his iPhone, the mother talking to friends on her smartphone, the teenage daughter listening to music on her iPod, and the little boy playing games on his iPad.

One could argue that the family has the best that technology could offer. Afterall, wasn't the iPad introduced worldwide only last year? And affluent Singaporeans should definitely buy the best for their children - especially since there is so much potential that the iPad could offer them academically and socially. Perhaps it might be more efficient to communicate with others using one's mobile devices - never mind that your family might be sitting next to you. Or maybe not, as one student shared with me during a recent student event. She said her family had gone for a group counselling session and one thing that she had requested was for her parents not to use their handphones during dinner. Elaborating, the student shared that her parents would always be talking about their business during dinner and that she had felt very alone. To her, quality family time is not just about eating dinner together, or even about spending a Sunday together in the living room with everyone doing their own thing. Quality time, she said, was a precious moment when all family members did things together and talked to each other about the things that mattered most.

Sue and I conduct seminars on cyber wellness and other aspects of Internet behaviour to various groups. Both of us have either together or separately facilitated workshops for educators, parents and students. I will discuss cyber wellness issues per se in another post as the topic is too huge to cover here. I however note that one recurrent theme emerging during our seminars is whether the Internet is more a positive or negative influence for us and our children. I am always ready to accept that the Internet has effected such a strongly positive change in the way we live our lives - especially in the way we now communicate globally and also how we conduct our educational and commercial activities. However, I am also cautious about the negative effects that hyper-connectivity can bring, and I am trying to implement measures to curb such influences.

One such measure that Sue and I have implemented in our home is the principle of "No Computer Day". We know that many households in Singapore have a schoolwork-oriented mindset. As such, parents instill a strict rule among their children that they are not allowed to use the computer on any day except Saturday or Sunday - with the exception of using the computer for schoolwork.

We can understand such a rationale, as it would mean that the children would only be allowed to play computer games over the weekends. This would allow the children to do their vital schoolwork on other days of the week. However, we firmly believe that the weekends should be spent with the family. As such, if we were to allow our children unlimited access to the computer during the weekends, this would be counter-effective towards our desire for them to spend quality family time with us. We therefore decided on the concept of not using the computer at all on Saturdays - except for important uses. This started about three months ago. When Z grows up and asks us why he cannot use the computer on Saturdays, we want to be able to tell him that his Daddy and Mummy have been doing so since he was a little baby, and that we hope he would also understand and choose to adopt such a principle for his life.

It has definitely not been easy to keep to the principle of "No Computer Day"; (and I have honestly not managed to spend every single Saturday disconnected from my computer,) but the results have been most noteworthy. Nowadays, I spend my Saturday mornings lying in bed beside my wife - both of us reading a book together. It's a precious moment that I would not trade for anything else in the world.

Another principle we have decided to adopt would be not to expose our son to the iPad and other such electronic devices until at least primary school. This adopts the recommendations by the American Academy of Paediatrics, which says that children under eight are spending too much time in front of their screens. One of my colleagues has lamented about his two-year-old grandnephew making gestures simulating the movement of the fingers on the iPad. Both of us have expressed concern that such an early exposure to technology could have a negative impact on the child, and I am determined that Z would not be influenced in such a manner.

Steve Jobs, the celebrated entrepreneur who introduced the iPad to millions of people worldwide, once said:

I have looked at myself in the mirror every morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ and whenever the answer is ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

For me, I know that I value the people closest to me most of all. If I were to ask the same question that Steve Jobs asked himself, I wouldn't want to say that I want to spend more time on my computer or on my latest i device. Instead, I would want to say that I want to spend the best day ever with my wife and son. To me that's all that matters.

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