CINDY, 29, a mother of a five-year-old, is increasingly concerned about the amount of time her son spends on the smartphone watching cartoons.
However, she says that he is also learning about basic concepts like the alphabet, animals and sports through his digital device.
“Although he spends more time than he should on the smartphone, he is still learning. However, I try to limit his use where possible as I realise it can be addictive and spoil his eyesight,” she said.
Occupational therapist Dr Dzalani Harun said excessive screen time brings more harm than good.
“Digital devices can have a positive impact on a child’s cognitive abilities to a certain extent as it involves the display of shapes, colours and letters of the alphabet.”
“But there are side effects to excessive and prolonged use.
“These include eyesight problems such as early onset of myopia as well as blurred vision, dry eyes and nerve damage,” he said.
Dzalani, who is head of the occupational therapy programme at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Health Sciences Faculty, said learning is better achieved through flash cards to teach basic concepts to very young children.
As a child gets older, his addiction to gadgets may also result to disinterest in studies.
“A video or game uses several elements to ‘hook’ a child. This can lead to the child not being able to pay attention in class as he has developed a shorter attention span.”
Speech delay is another problem that may crop up if parents do not closely monitor their child’s screen time.
“Language acquisition requires two-way communication, which gadgets cannot provide,” added Dzalani.
She said parents need to provide more sensory play activities that stimulate a child’s sense of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing.
These types of activities will have a positive effect on their cognitive, language and creative abilities.
Help for parents
To help parents start these good habits early, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and Federal Territories Ministry Puspanita division organised a Mega Sensory Play 1.0 programme in Taman Pudu Ulu, Kuala Lumpur.
The programme was attended by about 70 children, aged between six months and four years. It was conducted by 40 volunteers from UCSI College and Puspanita.
The activities were coordinated by UCSI Early Childhood Development lecturer Siti Sara Mohd Ariff who said sensory activities provide children with a meaningful avenue for learning.
She said parents should stop using smartphones as a quick fix when it came to parenting.
“It is definitely easier to show a crying child a screen, but in the long run it can backfire because research shows that there is an almost 50% chance of speech delay for children who are excessively exposed to devices when they are below the age of two.
“Children learn best by having ‘hands on’ experiences with materials. These promote their cognitive, language, social and emotional, physical and creative development.
“Parents need to invite their children to play instead of relying on smartphones and other gadgets,” said Siti Sara, adding that educational toys are designed specifically to stimulate learning by teaching the child about a particular subject or helping to develop a particular skill.
The animal-themed Mega Sensory Play 1.0 programme has five different stations focusing on enhancing children’s fine motor skills, allowing them to experience textures and smells as well as promoting their listening and motor skills through activities such as painting, dancing, petting animals, swimming and blowing bubbles.
DBKL Puspanita chairman Datin Rabithah Zakariah said activity-based learning is vital to facilitate children’s natural exploration and encourage them to use scientific processes as they play.
“This programme aims to create awareness among parents to incorporate sensory play into parenting.” she said.
Some of the benefits include increased self-confidence as sensory play-based activities facilitate a child’s problem-solving skills.
It also develops his social skills as he needs to communicate with others as it involves real-life interactions, unlike activities through digital devices.
“Their daily lives should have more activities that include sensory play and fewer gadgets,” said Rabithah who reminded parents to take their children outdoors as it is a natural playground.