Turn off, tune out: Children happy to just hang out

Turn off, tune out: Children happy to just hang out
Venessa Lee with her two children, Micah Broom, 5, and Leah Broom, 2, at home without TV, iPad, and smart phone on Jan 06 2015.

SINGAPORE - My baby girl once greeted my iPad good morning, so it would be fair to say that Leah, two, is fond of the device.

She never tires of watching Peppa Pig cartoons on YouTube and the same three blasted fairy tales installed on the tablet - tears ensue when we cut short these adventures.

Leah is also swipe-savvy across platforms. She sometimes trawls through my Android phone for photos and videos, and has been asking to use its camera.

I was sure that she would pose the greater challenge in my recent experiment in ensuring my children went without screens for a weekend - no tablets, no smartphones, no computers and no TV.

But that was before her elder brother Micah, five, started showing signs of withdrawal.

It all unfurled innocuously enough. My husband and I had decided on a strategy for avoiding screens one weekend late last month.

We would keep the children gainfully occupied and if that failed, we would just say no, steadfast amid the anticipated howls from our offspring.

The plan largely worked, to my surprise, convinced as I had been about the siren call of screens. Children seem to shut down, with the abruptness of a switch flicked off, when plonked in front of screens.

Studies have shown that excessive screen time can make it hard for kids to sleep at night. It can also raise their risk of attention problems, anxiety, depression and obesity.

That Saturday, whenever Leah chanced upon the smartphone or iPad and tried swiping them, I simply told her no.

We distracted her with Angry Birds figurines or "masak masak" (play-cooking) items she likes to play with. (A true digital native, the TV holds no allure for her.)

There was no dissent. She played contentedly with her brother, both children occasionally crawling into our laps to join in our conversation.

Surrounded by a toy army of plastic tat, it nonetheless was one of those moments of quiet domestic contentment.

It also helped that we plotted to keep Leah and Micah engaged that weekend, rather than potter around till we realise that lunch is upon us, as is usually the case.

We went for meals and read books together, shopped for groceries, window-shopped at Toys 'R' Us, visited friends and went for a children's party.

I generally try to limit screen time for my kids. What I hadn't realised was that screens are pretty unavoidable, even outside the home.

Micah and I were twitching away from tablets laid out for kids to play with at the toy store, as well as random screens in shopping malls showing advertisements and movie trailers.

However, I found that once we made the effort to engage with our children, they were happy just hanging out with us.

It made me reflect that the iPad was the soft option for us. In some ways, we had been using it as a crutch to get us over the rough spots in parenting.

For example, sometimes, I let Leah, a picky eater, watch videos online so we can avoid yet another battle royale over her marked preference for rice and only rice.

While watching the screen, transfixed, she doesn't seem to care what she eats, gulping down regular mouthfuls of food like a zombie goldfish.

And I'm sure I'm not the only parent who has used the iPad as a digital babysitter for at least a few minutes after a tiring day at work, or while preparing a meal.

My experiment showed me, though, that our children didn't depend on screens as much as I'd thought.

However, it did get more complicated.

It dawned on Micah early on that he wouldn't be allowed any screens that weekend. By 10am on Saturday, he'd started saying, to no one in particular, things such as "I haven't watched an iPad in ages" and "No iPad, not even TV, for two days!"

It seemed as if playing his favourite game on the iPad or watching cartoons on the TV - dependable, small pleasures - had now been elevated to the status of forbidden fruit. He was like an addict with withdrawal symptoms; a dieter craving a hit of french fries.

When my mum turned on the TV, he darted past it with averted eyes on the way to the bathroom.

When my sister came over for lunch on Sunday with her brood, my son responded to a casual hi from his much-loved aunt by declaring: "I'm too busy to watch the iPad today!"

The funny thing was, when the weekend was over, he watched nothing on the iPad, just his regular cartoons on TV that Monday.

The craving was bigger than the prize. Micah didn't need screens as much as he thought.

What it showed me, though, was how lucky I am to have a child who wants to obey his mum. He tried so hard, and succeeded, in staying off screens that weekend. I was proud of him and told him so.

One of the things he said that weekend, a confused misapprehension that I tried to but couldn't correct, was: "If I don't watch the iPad for two days, I'll be in the newspaper for the first time."

Well, now you are, my love.


This article was first published on January 11, 2015.
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