Monday, February 22, 2016

Breaking our kids out of the digital death grip

There's already plenty of research and literature out there showing that too much time on the Internet and electronic devices is detrimental to kids in a myriad of ways. This isn't news and I assume that most adults already know that. However, I recently read the findings of this child psychologist's research that brought the impact of the digital age a whole new level. A group of kids between the ages of 12-18 voluntarily spent 8 hours without electronic gadgets in an experiment and the result was startling. Only 3 out of the 68 kids completed the experiment.

Quote: "Three of the participants had suicidal thoughts. Five of them experienced intense panic attacks. Twenty-seven experienced symptoms such as nausea, sweating, dizziness, hot flushes and abdominal pain. Almost everyone who took part experienced feelings of fear and anxiety."

Suicidal thoughts and panic attacks? Wow.

Among the biggest complaints about kids I hear from my friends is that of Internet addiction so it's a hugely common problem. They complain that their kids spend too much time on the phone/computer/iPad and it affects everything from grades in school to interest in books to social skills.

Last week, Lesley-Anne and I conducted school talks at ISS International and we had a chat with the librarian. She lamented that kids these days don't read as much as they should because they have lost the ability to focus, due to exposure to digital gadgets. They expect everything to be quick and bite-sized. They lose interest in books that don't feature instant action and pictures. She was speaking anecdotally but I checked and the research backs her instincts. According to this article on Medical Daily, the digital age has decreased our attention span to just 8 seconds. That's less than a goldfish's attention span.

I don't claim to have all the answers - my kids are not immune to the lure of the Internet. However, I offer two observations based on my own experiences that hopefully can bring some insight into how parents can navigate this digital minefield.

1) Getting addicted is easy

This might sound like a "no shit, Sherlock!" observation but some parents behave like they're completely unaware of this. I've seen parents indulging their toddlers with iPads, gushing about how quickly their little ones figured out how to work the screens. I see 9-year-olds being given handphones with unrestricted and unsupervised airtime, with the flimsy excuse, "oh, everyone has one".

It takes almost no time at all to get from "here's a laptop" to "I've got a gaming monster on my hands". Like with any addiction, getting hooked is ridiculously easy. Just ask a smoker how simple it is to get from the first puff to the two-packs-a-day habit. If you understand this, wouldn't you think twice, thrice, about giving your kids unfettered access to electronic gadgets?

In our household, I had long imposed restrictions on electronic devices. When the iPad was all the rage and my mil wanted to get one for the kids, I put my foot down. I refused to buy laptops for my kids because I foresaw the dangers of them having a portable device where they could potentially spend hours on it, without my knowledge. For a long time, the kids' computer was a desktop located in my office, next to my desk. In other words, within my sight. Since it's not very fun to play games with your mum constantly peering over your shoulder and nagging at you, the computer wasn't used that often.

A few friends asked me, "but don't your kids need a laptop for school?" I suspect the "needing a laptop for school" argument is created by kids or parents who wish to justify their purchases. Unless it's the school that imposes such requirements (which I'm opposed to), I've found this to be false, right up to secondary school. My kids had not felt the need to bring a laptop to school. They did their homework on the home computer and on the few occasions that Lesley-Anne had to do some IT stuff in school, she used the computers in the school library. No biggie.

This carried on until Lesley-Anne entered JC, where she had to do her project work with her group in school every day. So we finally caved and bought her a cheap, practical Asus netbook. Nothing fancy and as a bonus, it's small, light and easy to carry around. It served its purpose but guess what - after Lesley-Anne got the netbook, she suddenly spent a lot more time in her room, surfing the Net and watching Youtube videos. Sigh. Repeat after me: getting addicted is easy.

Nevertheless, I would say Lesley-Anne is quite the untypical teenager in that she has a rather dispassionate attitude towards all things electronic. She doesn't use Twitter or Instagram, and her Facebook account is practically dead. I don't want to claim too much credit though cos she hardly watches TV as well, which was not something I restricted too much. She says it's boring and time-wasting.

2) Enforcement is hard

Many parents, when they finally realise that their kids are spending more time in front of the computer or phone than the other hours of the day put together (and usually when the latest exam results come back in brilliant hues of red), decide they have to Do Something. The most common is limiting time ("only one hour of computer time a day!") or confiscating the offending object ("no phone until you pass your Maths again!")

Like my ex-boss would say, "Very easy to give, very hard to take back."

Enforcement is very difficult once your kids have become addicted to digital devices. As with most addictions, it takes A LOT of willpower to quit. They may know all the logical reasons for quitting and may even be willing to stop, but they're unable to help themselves. So unless you're able to watch over your children 24/7 to ensure they abide by your new rules, chances are they're trying to find a way to satisfy that craving without your knowledge. It's not that they're bad, evil children. That's the way addiction works. Think alcoholics and smokers.

I faced a similar encounter with Andre. So as mentioned above, the kids' pc was next to mine and Andre would sometimes play games on it. It was mostly Minecraft and a few other games, and I had imposed a one-hour daily limit but it grew to become a problem when he was simply unable to stop. I would be yelling at him, "You've already played for more than an hour!" and he would beg, "10 more minutes!"

Sometime last year, I caught him breaking a rule or something (don't remember what the exact situation was) and as a punishment, I banned him from any computer time for a week. One night before the week was up, I caught him in the room, playing on the computer in the dark when he thought I'd gone to bed. I might have banned him from the computer for life that night. I don't remember because parts of my brain might have been blown to bits when I exploded.

In other words, do not underestimate the addictive powers of that electronic gadget when you freely give it to your kids. It's easier to start out not creating the environment that sets you up for failure, than to try and remedy the situation later. Expecting teenagers and kids to automatically be able to control their digital usage is like leaving a toddler in a candy store and expecting him to eat within reasonable limits. Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, limited the use of technology for his own children. When the creator of the iPad doesn't allow his own children to use it, that speaks volumes.

So back to the Andre vs the computer story. I'm happy to say that story had a happy ending. God must have taken pity on me and intervened because not too long after that episode, the offending computer inexplicably died. Since that occurred during Andre's exam period, I told Kenneth we would think about replacing it only after, so Andre wouldn't be tempted to play on it.

Then the exams came and went, and we never got around to discussing the replacement (partly because buying tech stuff to me is even less enjoyable and interesting than the tedium of marking assessment papers.) The day after his exams, Andre grumbled a little that he couldn't play his games, but astonishingly, after just a few days, he never mentioned it again. Before we knew it, a few months had passed.

We came to the realisation that the computer actually didn't serve much of a useful purpose and was more an instrument enabling Andre's gaming addiction. When the computer died, his addiction died a natural death too. When asked if he misses the games, he says sometimes. But it has become more of an occasional itch that can be quickly forgotten, rather than a full-blown obsession. This reinforces my belief that addicts really do want to quit but are just unable to. Sometimes, going cold turkey is the only way. When Andre needs to do some work now, he uses my computer. It was truly no big loss and a huge gain. Admittedly, he still spends too much time watching Youtube videos on his phone, but I'm sure God will get to that in time, heh.

Don't get me wrong - I don't believe in cutting off all exposure to the Internet (I don't think it's possible anyway) since there are obvious benefits to being connected digitally. But given the highly addictive nature of digital devices, I believe that as parents, we can and should set limits at home.

I know it can be challenging going down this route. Take away their computers and kids can still have access to the Internet via their phones. We can't supervise their cyber activities round the clock. Hence, to have a fighting chance of countering digital addiction, we've got to do more than simply restricting access. To me, this means increasing the arsenal of meaningful activities that we expose our kids to... and while we're at it, be a good role model. Put aside your own phone and laptop, and be an active participant along with your kids. Activities like reading, baking, playing board games, or outdoor activities like riding a bike, swimming, or simply spending time with them chatting. You get the drift.

It's not that these activities mean your kids won't get hooked on computer games. But instinctively, I think when a kid's time is filled with interesting stuff, it lays the ground for other passions and habits to take root, and they're less likely to try and fill their voids electronically. If their real world is meaningful enough, they won't feel the need to replace it with a virtual one.


Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

Thanks for this article.
I read the Med Daily article before too - and finds it unbelievable that humans have such shortened attention spans now! Blink - and we need to have a dose of something else....

The problem is some schools do advocate using screens -e-learning is seen as edgy, creative ...on a regular basis.

Another bugbear I have is that such addiction can pose dangers to personal safety. I have seen too many kids (teenagers) engrossed in their smartphones and they are simply oblivious to the traffic. They just cross the road without checking! That to me is outright dangerous.

monlim said...

I believe there is a time and space for e-learning but the problem is, 90% of the time, the device is not used for e-learning.

As for using phones while crossing the road, yep, it's crazy foolhardy. Did you read this?

Anonymous said...


LA's secondary school uses iPad heavily for the girls' learning. I am surprised she didn't seem to use it much, as I read from your post.


monlim said...

Patricia: That scheme started the year after Lesley-Anne, so she didn't have to use the iPad, thankfully! Not sure if the programme is still on.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica,

Thanks for sharing the news article. Gosh, so scary...I am quite sure that the young chap regretted using his phone while crossing the road!

On a unrelated note, any thoughts on the recent discussion about fewer students taking up Geography following the revamped syllabus (L-A took Geo at A levels right?), granted that there are already fewer students doing humanities/arts subjects at A levels?


monlim said...

Grace: L-A was part of the last batch to sit for the old Geography syllabus. Over the years, I think the A level curriculum is trying to move towards more applied knowledge so you can't memorise and regurgitate info. I think it's a good move.

It's incredibly sad lah, that we still face situations where kids will not take a subject for fear they cannot "score". Really reinforces the farce of our education system that it's not for learning.

I don't think it will affect the total number of humanities kids though. Probably these kiasu kids will just look at taking a different humanities subject.

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica

Sorry, just want to follow up with a question on the humanities.
you mean there ARE other humanities subjects that you can memorise and regurgitate?

My thinking is that too many kids who actually excel at the humanities will shy away from taking them for the 'big' exams as there is no so-called correct (black and white) answer as compared to the Maths and Sciences subjects.


monlim said...

Grace: It's true that it's harder to memorise answers for humanities subjects but there are varying levels - geog is still very much content-based (more so than history or lit), so some kids DO attempt to score by memorising info. Though I think you're unlikely to do well by just memorising and regurgitating at A levels, the questions call for more than that.

Tammy said...

Totally agree with the content of your post in general...but I think that study mentioned at the beginning might be an internet hoax. Some bloggers have tried to dig up more about it and concluded it is clickbait. I thought it might be worth a check as the outcomes sound quite extreme!

Have been following your blog for a while and really enjoy it. You're further along the parenting curve than I am so I find your insights really helpful. And often hilarious.

monlim said...

Tammy: Oh, thanks for the tip about the article! And glad you find my posts helpful :)

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