Mother’s account of breaking her toddler’s video-game addiction

MALAYSIA - It all started out so easy. Passing the iPhone to my son during dinners at restaurants. It gave me quick relief without having to take him to the fish tanks to see fishes or have him bang spoons on plates. Most of all, it was the fastest way for him to eat up his food, distracted by the iPhone. With my little gadget, it was always a quiet, peaceful dining experience.

Over time, it became an expected practice each time we dined out or when he sat in the shopping cart. At home, he'd throw a tantrum to get the device to play games. He would rummage through his aunt's handbag in search of her iPhone, and pester his uncle for his iPad. He would rush up to relatives, friends and even strangers to view what was on their mobile phone screen. People would gush: "Wow! Only two years old and so clever to play the iPhone!"

My mother, however, would cringe. As a former nurse, she knows an addiction when she sees one. My two-year-old was an iPhone games addict, all right.

I'd heard of video-game addiction during the late 1990s. Concerns over such obsession have grown over the years. I am not an expert on the matter but I have observed the ill-effects it has on people and I heed the warnings from news reports. I did not want my child's social development, and mental and psychological health to be hindered by technology. I asked my mum for help.

The turning point came when we went on a family trip. My mother seized the opportunity to break the addiction by making my son go cold turkey. To accomplish this, my husband and I were barred from using our iPhones during the trip - or at least while in my son's presence. So we only took the devices out at night when he was fast asleep.

The first two days was the worst. He would refuse to eat but scream, cry and throw a fit at restaurants. It was embarrassing as fellow diners turned to stare at the ruckus. Once, a diner came over to enquire what was wrong and when he heard our reply, he told my husband to just give the boy the gadget to keep him quiet.

We were going to give in and take out our iPhones when my mum sternly ordered us to stop. His screams and cries were the addiction breaking, she said. We carried him out of the restaurant to calm him down and returned to rush through our meal.

On Day Three, we started seeing improvements. The crying reduced. I started bringing along coloured pencils and a colouring book for him to fill his time while waiting for the food to arrive at the restaurant. I also let him rattle his spoon on his plate. I found stickers to be a good distraction, too.

By the end of our five-day trip, my son no longer cried nor screamed for the iPhone and my mum was pleased.

But strict rules were to be imposed. I made it clear that iPhone or iPad usage is not to be more than an hour a day. I monitor others who give my son access to their gadgets. And no gadgets on weekends, which will be filled with activities such as playing in the park, gardening and picnics.

Eating out is kept fun by just talking, doing colouring or having new stickers. We are also able to make it through Chinese wedding dinners with our son seated nicely for three hours without the need for gadgets (for such occasions, I bring along play dough). My heart swells with pride when people praise my son for his good behaviour at weddings.

Today, I, not my son, control the usage of the iPhone. Speaking from experience, I'd say such gadgets should not be used as a "pacifier" for the kid or a "babysitter" for parents to have some peace and quiet. There's always time when they're older to learn about technology.

My son is now three-and-a-half years old. These days, if I hand him my iPhone, I can easily take it back without him throwing a fit. Sometimes he passes it back to me without my asking as he wants to go out to play instead.

After all, the playground is the original play station.

The writer has two sons aged three and five, who are not deprived of technology but are enjoying a well-rounded upbringing. The writer gladly dispenses advice to friends who want to curb their kids' overuse of electronic devices.