Unlike my generation who grew up with a more gradual pace of technological advancement, my children were born into an age of widespread Internet connectivity, and have hence interacted with the online world from a much younger age.
One harrowing encounter we had was when we allowed our 4-year-old son to use a smart phone app to help him build with Lego. Moments into scrolling through blueprints, he came over with the phone and asked me for help. It turned out that he had accidentally clicked the subscription button and almost paid the fees for a premium plan!
Besides this incident, the prominence of Internet technologies in the home exposes our children to other risks, including online safety, graphic content, privacy, and so on. However, such technologies also possess great potential for our children’s development.
How then do we strike a balance in using technology with our kids? Based on our experiences, we have learnt the following principles:
Children often reflect their parents’ behaviours, and just as we hope they will pick up our good habits, they also catch our device habits from us. Even if we were attending to important matters on our phones, our children would interpret our actions as valuing device usage over relating to them.
It is important to first be disciplined with device usage ourselves before expecting it of our children. Hence, we try to remain device-free during specific periods of the day, such as during mealtimes, reading time and playtime. My wife and I also try to ensure each of us have sufficient time to attend to our work responsibilities, so we can be less distracted when it is time to be present with our children.
As parents, we should be role models of good device usage to our children.
One of the best ways to help the family stay unplugged is to build it into family routines. We meet with family and friends about once or twice a week for playtime and catch-ups. We also take our children outdoors regularly, be it walks in the park, playground time or even errand runs to expose them to active lifestyles. This encourages them to move away from online media and towards physical and social activities.
However, because we carry the Internet in our pockets, the challenge is limiting device usage while out and about too! We should remind ourselves to keep our phones away as far as possible (unless expecting urgent calls), and immerse ourselves in the moment.
With online media being widely available and accessible, it is unrealistic to cut it out of our children’s lives completely. Instead, we aim for moderation by setting reasonable limits on screen time.
For example, most online content exceeds 5 minutes. If we wouldn’t watch 5 minutes of Netflix at a time, we shouldn’t impose this on our children! A useful benchmark is to stay within guidelines by KKH, which recommends screen time of 1 hour and below per day for children aged 18 months to 3 years.
There are also child-safe apps that help keep our children safe online. For example, YouTube Kids is curated with age-appropriate content and offers more parental controls than the standard YouTube app. Parents may also use screen-pinning on their phones to prevent children from accessing other apps or functions during screen time.
When children are meaningfully absorbed in their preferred tools of offline play, they will be less drawn to online entertainment.
When our children are meaningfully occupied with their preferred tools of play, it is easier for them to rely less on devices for entertainment. Our son enjoys playing with Lego, which keeps him offline and occupied for long periods while helping him develop creativity and motor skills.
It is important to find toys that our children enjoy and that are challenging enough to keep them engaged. For example, we intentionally curate our son’s Lego sets by looking for themes that our son would be interested in, and have an age-appropriate difficulty level.
Although the Internet comes with many risks, it is also a powerful educational tool when used appropriately. There are far more educational content options than we ever had in the past.
We should use this to our advantage as far as possible. Our son has picked up a wide variety of knowledge and skills from watching various programmes online, including art (e.g., drawing and craft), culinary skills (e.g., cooking demonstration videos), language, as well as math and science. When used within healthy limits and with close guidance, online technologies can be a rich source of knowledge and exposure for our children.
Remaining connected to our children
It can seem an impossible task to free ourselves from the grip of connectivity in our homes, since there is no manual for how to raise children in the Internet age. At the end of the day, however, technology should be seen as a tool. Our role as parents is to set safe boundaries around the use of technology, manage its risks, and enable our children to draw from its benefits.
Ultimately, there is no replacement for our role as parents in the family. What our children need to grow into healthy and well-regulated individuals is for us to be present and loving in their lives. In a world where our attention is constantly being competed for, let us challenge ourselves to develop the most important connection of all —that with our children.
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