Cyber addiction: We can do more to help our children

|     Azlan Othman     |

IT IS said too much of a good thing is bad thing. And the Internet and technology are most certainly good things.

So good, in fact, that they’ve become almost indispensible – things so vital that, outside our basic necessities of a decent full meal, a good drink and a shower (provided we already have a house over our heads), they literally rank as the items we most can’t live without daily.

This, of course, is one extreme. The other is when we have – or rather, bury ourselves into – too much of technology and the Internet.

Our children are not immune to this too. In fact, this has mass-infected them. For parents, gone are the days when you come home to see your young ones out in the garden or backyard playing with their toy trucks, or indulging with their siblings in games of hide-and-seek and catch while dressed in Superman and Batman outfits.

The more likely scene to greet you is that of your children being absorbed in their smartphones, iPads, miscellaneous electronic gadgets, and computers – all rite-of-passage devices for the preschoolers, preteens and teens of today, playing games and whatnot.

And it is this trend that worries parents. More and more are seeking help for their children’s cyber and smart device addiction, which, for the record, is a real phenomenon.

Recent Europe-focussed studies indicate that four out of 10 children are addicted to the Internet, raising fears from children’s campaigners that they could fall victim to cyber-bullying.

Singapore’s Touch Community Services (TCS) CEO, James Tan (L) and Senior Director Anita Low-Lim with TCS publications. – PHOTOS: AZLAN OTHMAN
Anita Low-Lim and James Tan during an interview with the Bulletin
TCS publications used to inform the dangers of smartphones and Internet addiction

In another separate survey of more than 2,200 young people, it was found that a staggering two third of 11 to 17-year-olds take their smartphones, tablets or laptops to bed to chat with friends online, watch films or play games.

In the study, an anonymous 12-year-old girl starkly mentioned that “the Internet nearly always controls my actions”, and that she has been told that “I prefer its company rather than being with other people”. She also says that “I feel lost without the Internet”.

While the above example teeters on the fringes of normality, bits of it can be observed in Brunei.

Many Bruneian parents are acutely aware of the ill effects excessive gadget screen time can have on their children, despite recognising the benefits of mobile devices in supplementing their learning. A combination of hectic schedules and the need to juggle work and family demands means that parents usually succumb to the “easy” way of getting their children to behave – letting them play with Internet-connected electronic devices.

This can very quickly lead to cyber or gadget addiction. It is therefore crucial to teach our children good habits when going online and the importance of exercising restraint in their use of technology.

Backing this sentiment in a recent interview with the Bulletin was TOUCH Community Services (TCS) CEO, James Tan, who said that parents need to take a firm hold in countering Internet and smartphone addiction in their children.

TCS is Singapore’s leading agency in cyber wellness and new media literacy programmes. It is supported by Singapore’s Ministry of Social and Family Development, Info-communications Media Development Authority, and Media Literacy Council.

The charitable organisation, which has been running cyber wellness education and counselling programmes and reached out to over 360 schools and more than 1.6 million youth, parents, educators and counsellors since 2001, aspires to tackle the growing problem of cyber-bullying, cultivate a balanced lifestyle, as well as encourage responsible use of digital technologies to engender a positive and healthy cyber culture at home, in school and the community.

For Tan, setting boundaries is needed when it comes to teaching children how to responsibly use the Internet. He added that parents should apply these limits to themselves as well in order to set an example.

“From our experience dealing with youth, one of the reasons why they end up taking on excessive behaviours is that they are just not relating at home. When you go out, sometimes you’ll see whole families at a restaurant and the kids will have their iPads and phones and fiddling with them,” Tan said. “It’s the same with the parents. When they are also doing it, it sets the tone for the children and it’s difficult for them to form relationships, especially if they are allowed to continue with such behaviour without having to be bounded by rules.”

He continued, “This is to prevent your child’s excessive habits from spinning out of control and leading to deeper issues such as dips in academic performance, truancy, disobedience, and social and family withdrawal.”

Meanwhile, Senior Director at TCS Anita Low-Lim, said the key course of action to take in such a situation is face-to-face intervention with the child via counselling sessions with his or her parents, or group interventions involving eight to 10 youth facing similar problems.

“We teach the children that their life is not just about gaming and the Internet. We use diversification strategies to treat them, for example we introduce them to real-world activities such as badminton, photography, fishing and others,” she said. “This way, we help them form real friendships – not just virtual ones – and give them real group support. Over time they begin to reduce the number of hours spent gaming. It is unrealistic, however, to expect the children to totally stop gaming, that’s not possible or healthy either. Moderation is the key.”

Low-Lim added that the most ideal way to prevent and curb excessive gaming among children is by setting boundaries and instilling within them desired social values.

“We encourage parents to set boundaries like making agreements with their children on their computers and gadgets usage, for example allowing them to only use the devices during weekends or for one hour a day, or certain hours to reward them for finishing their homework or chores,” she said. “Parental involvement will, of course, decrease the older the child gets, but we believe a foundation needs to be set for the child with regard to responsible use of the Internet and tech devices. These measures are best enforced for the children as young as possible, even as early as the preschool stage. This is important, as when the children get older, it will be much harder for them to shake off undesirable cyber habits.”