Technology is Changing the Childhood We Once Knew

loading The best age to expose preschool children to technology is above three years old.

IF YOU THINK millennials – those born in 1980-2001 – are selfie-taking hipsters, well, think again. Many are now parents to Generation Alpha (2010-2025); the generation that commenced the same year Instagram and the iPad came into existence.

And as YouTube replaces MTV and Saturday morning cartoons, and toy trucks and traditional games are exchanged for apps, it is starting to dawn on millennial parents that their children’s childhoods will be very different from their own.

As a boy, engineer Wan Nor Rashidi used to spend a lot of time outdoors with his friends learning how to skate, fly kites or hang out at the nearby playground. “Every day at 5pm, I’d head out to join the neighbourhood kids. My parents didn’t care where I was or who I was with. I just had to be home for dinner.” But when asked if he would allow his four children to roam around as freely unsupervised, the 38-year-old replies with a resounding NO.

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But why are millennials like Rashidi, who enjoyed a “free-range” childhood, keeping their children on a mindful leash? Much of this has to do with the ever-evolving nature of how millennials consume news, from print newspapers and limited consumer broadcast to social media and round-the-clock news networks and websites – they have all the information they need at the touch of an app.

Social media has become the main source of news. There are now more than 2.4 billion internet users, nearly 64.5% of whom receive breaking news from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram instead of traditional media. 1 Millennials are becoming more aware of the threats to their children’s day-to-day safety, thanks to the relentless news coverage by online media, both verified and fake news, of murder, kidnapping and other crimes.

Coupled with the availability of smartphones and the iPad, keeping their children at home is now a viable, not to mention safer, option. “It’s what I call electronic babysitting. My children are entertained by their devices and I rest easy knowing they are safe at home. Plus, it’s not like they are not exposed to the outdoors. I take them out to the beach and parks on weekends,” he says.

Certain educational and economic shifts necessitate millennial parents to embrace technology as a three-way tool for parenting, entertainment and learning. “Especially with the recent MCO, kids as young as six are required to at least know the basics like username, password, chat, e-forms and Google search. This has become a necessity more than a luxury; the internet was a luxury only back in the 90s,” says another parent Marion Yeoh. “My son didn't use a computer until he entered primary school, and his teacher allocated game time to help him build his computer skills. What’s more, coding is now taught in primary schools.”

Millennial parents often expose their children to the outdoors on weekends.

More mothers re-entering the workforce are also a deciding factor for children to be sent to day-care centres. This has increased their exposure to technology. “I read so many articles about the danger of exposing our kids to technology and had this grand plan of not exposing my child to tech devices until he reached a certain age,” says entrepreneur Aniza Ismail. That all changed when she became a mother. “I caved and bought an iPad for my son as a gift, so my husband and I could take some time alone to recuperate after work.”

But even full-time homemakers struggle to parent sans technology. After reading the importance of imaginative play for toddlers, Gooi Yi Ling bought a play kitchen to encourage pretend-play with her two-year-old, only to turn it into a toy storage. “I got tired of pretending to eat fake pizzas and sandwiches,” she says. However, the former recruitment consultant does limit her son’s screen time to under two hours a day.

While millennial parents are quick to surrender their phones to bored toddlers in exchange for some peace of mind, it begs the question: at what age should children be exposed to technology?

According to Prospect Rainbow Centre’s deputy principal Buveni Ann Mayan, the best age to expose preschool children to technology is above three years old, with stipulations made on the recommended screen time, e.g. an hour daily for pre-schoolers and not more than 30-45 minutes for special needs children.

“Technology is a silent threat to children under three. From birth, babies learn by playing and exploring in a safe and stimulating environment, and trying lots of different activities. Being exposed too early to gadgets limit interpersonal interactions, social interactions and play skills, which in turn affects their social, mental and cognitive development,” Buveni explains.

But some parents, like lecturer Sabrina Hashim, find that technology helps to spark curiosity. “My son found a rather cool science experiment on YouTube and we spent an afternoon trying it out. It was really interesting to see how he takes what he has learned and turns it into real-world skills,” she says.

Prospect Rainbow Centre's Deputy Principal Buveni Ann Mayan.

Others – including me – find that technology has helped their tots to learn faster and better. Having been exposed to educational apps like Endless Academy and Sago Mini School at a young age, my 5-year-old son, who is autistic, is able to recognise alphabets, numbers and shapes as early as when he was 16 months old.

Buveni agrees, too, highlighting that limited screen time can improve word learning, promote and improve cognitive development, and heighten the capacity for visual attention.

“Learning in this digital era is now perceived very differently. Students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting may find their learning improving with the aid of technology. In special education, technology allows communications to be simplified which also improves the students’ academic skills.

“Having said that, you have to think of gadgets like instant noodles – it won’t kill you but you wouldn’t want to consume it at every meal, every day, replacing real meals.”

Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer who has a love-hate relationship with the weighing scale.

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