Singapore

Unhealthy smartphone dependence among children on the rise

Psychiatrists here seeing more cases while Singtel survey shows Singapore kids' online usage higher than global average

If you become anxious when you cannot use your smartphone or are terrified of misplacing it, you could be suffering from nomophobia.

The term, a combination of the words "no", "mobile", "phone" and "phobia", is an irrational fear of being unable to use your mobile phone.

The term was coined during a study commissioned by the UK Post Office to look at anxieties suffered by mobile phone users.

Some Singaporeans are all too familiar with such anxieties.

Touch Cyber Wellness senior coach Michelle Lee told The New Paper that more young users are having trouble putting down their phones because they fear missing out on updates from their friends' social media posts.

The increasing popularity of multiplayer games, such as Vain Glory, Mobile Legends and Fortnite Mobile, is also a factor.

...this is not a sustainable approach. They may be entertained by the device, but once you remove it, the tantrums may start to surface. Touch Family Services counsellor Chong Ee Jay, on using the phone as a babysitting device, often at mealtimes

"These games resemble the elaborate scale of PC games- elaborate graphics, similar gameplay and a massive following. This type of games that used to be available only on PC are now on mobile phones," Ms Lee said.

Psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow said: "Nowadays, smartphones are often the first thing people turn to in the morning, so that they can check their games or messages from friends.

"This is how smartphones have become the most important thing in children's lives."

Dr Carol Balhetchet, a clinical psychologist in private practice, said one of the attractions of smartphones to children is how they provide a sense of freedom.

She said: "Children love smartphones because it gives them easy access to a new world of information, social media and friends on a universal level, quite similar to the adults and everyone else."

Four out of every five clients she sees find it difficult to put away their phones, be it due to addiction, gaming or use of social media.

Parents told TNP about their difficulties controlling their children's use of the smartphone, even when they use it for educational purposes.

Housewife Rosfarah Rina Ramli, 26, who has three children aged four, two, and seven months, said she is worried about her eldest son being unable to eat and sleep well because of his smartphone dependence.

She allows him to use her phone for up to two hours a day, usually for educational games, such as tracing the alphabet, but he has trouble keeping to the time limit.

"My son started to throw tantrums and became more aggressive and also doesn't want to share the phone with his siblings.

"Though he will cry when I take away the phone, I still do it because I want him to understand the consequences of his misbehaviour," she said.

Media Literacy Council member Jiow Hee Jhee said: "Typically, parents find the smartphone an effective distraction. It captivates their children's attention and keeps them quiet.

"(But) parents are generally pressed for time and tired, so they don't have the energy to guide their children."

Dr Jiow, a 45-year-old father of four children, aged 14, 12, nine and six, has done research on children's media habits. He found two common reasons for the high consumption of media in children: Some parents use smart devices as babysitting tools; and some parents influence their kids to follow their media habits because they find it a challenge to be good role models of digital usage.

His research also found that the implications of role-modelling is important in a child's development as children imitate their parents' behaviour when adults use their phones in front of the children.

However, IT professional Max Teo, 43, said he is not worried about his children, aged eight and six, becoming addicted because he has set a strict policy on smartphone use.

He said: "I usually allow them only one to two hours' use every weekend, and only if they have completed their schoolwork.

"I haven't considered when to give them phones yet, I will give them only if there is a genuine need."

Such cases would be when schoolwork requires the use of certain smartphone apps, or if his child is on an excursion and might need a phone in case of an emergency, Mr Teo said.

Touch Family Services counsellor Chong Ee Jay said: "As the father of a two-year-old, I can empathise with parents giving their kids the phone as it is often the easiest way to keep them quiet during mealtimes.

"But this is not a sustainable approach. They may be entertained by the device, but once you remove it, the tantrums may start to surface."

Mr Chong also said that parents must be in control of the device and not leave it with the child.

He said: "Parents can help the child make sense of what they are seeing on the device. In this way, they remain in control as the teacher, and the device remains a tool."

Dr Balhetchet suggests that parents should role-model good behaviour and not take away screen time completely from their kids.

"Allow them time but structure it. Give them time to be more responsible," she said.

Being a positive role model is important, said Ms Lee of Touch Cyber Wellness.

"If we want the kids to follow our instructions, we need to first model it for them and monitor our own social media usage," she explained.

One tip is to turn off instant pop-up notifications, she added.

"Children are likely to respond immediately whenever they see them, distracting them from the task at hand. Encourage your child to turn off social media notifications and check for updates only during certain periods in the day."

Ms Jenny Liew, a counsellor with the National Addictions Management Service, said exploring and enjoying a variety of recreational activities can reduce the likelihood of problems arising from overdependence on smart devices.

"Set guidelines on using mobile devices during social interactions (like family time, mealtime with friends), which could include limiting time spent on checking the digital devices, or shutting off the devices altogether.

"Make it a point to prioritise your focus on your present engagement rather than on checking your digital devices," she added.

On its website, the Media Literacy Council suggests parents teach time management skills and help children practice self-control.

For instance, completing all schoolwork or any chores before going online for fun.

It said: "If you notice that your child is spending too much time on the Internet, feeling lost or restless when offline, or is isolating himself/herself from family and friends, it's time you step in and talk to your child about the underlying issues. Seek professional help if necessary."

Agreeing, Ms Lee said: "Many smartphone users tend to turn into smartphone zombies, and become oblivious to their surroundings because they are distracted by the phone."

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