Mum’s confession: The day my toddler asked me to put down my phone

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Deep in thought, I failed to notice the persistent drumming of little fingers on my thigh.

“Put… down… your phone,” sputtered my ruddy-cheeked, then 20-month-old toddler, tightly clutching her Dr Seuss’ Mr Brown Can Moo board-book.

My husband shot me – and my smartphone – a pointed glance.

I brandished the screen, displaying a half-composed e-mail. “This is for work,” I mumbled defensively. “Not like I am on social media.” (Just in case it looked like I was watching amusing video parodies of global political figures. Again.)

Instinctively, of course, I grasped the point. It was precious family time on a Sunday evening, and we had set out to have fun and bond with our children – device-free.

That one of my toddler’s first complete sentences – complete with a possessive adjective – was about my smartphone also delivered food for thought.

It is not that screen time pervades our family life, I rationalised.

My three children, now in kindergarten and nursery, neither watched television nor played with personal digital devices the first two years of their lives.

The screen embargo was lifted temporarily on only two occasions: for the National Day Parade live telecast and for FaceTime when my husband travelled abroad.

Our television set was a white elephant. I consider this a feat, given how we used to eagerly catch the latest programmes in our once child-free life. (Game Of Thrones in recent years? BBC’s Sherlock? Forget it.)

But I suppose these efforts were well worth it. We enjoyed our children climbing onto our laps and clamouring to be read to, embarking on “good old-fashioned” pursuits like climbing at the playgrounds, doodling, dancing and simply goofing around – activities we loved for growing their imaginations.

I high-fived my husband when my elder twins hit the age of two, before which the American Academy of Paediatrics recommended no screen exposure (although this guideline has recently been changed to 18 months).

“We made it,” I cried, until it sank in that if we wanted to effectively limit screen exposure for our youngest, delaying the introduction of television for another year or two for the elder ones would really help.

Today, my brood watches a curated selection of programmes on television or YouTube, twice a week.

Related: 6 ways to limit screen time for babies, toddlers and preschoolers

Much has been discussed about limiting screen exposure for young children. But as my children grow older, I am keenly aware that theirs is a generation of digital natives, and digital abstinence is clearly unsustainable in the long run.

Technology is set to be integral in their lives, even livelihoods, as some would argue.

I believe that children who are equipped to use digital media wisely can plug critical gaps, discover new frontiers and – not to sound trite – even change the world.

But if technology is pivotal in their lives, how do our children learn to use it in moderation, and find a balance between the real and virtual worlds?

Or as a cousin wondered that day: “How do we get our children to have a healthy screen and media diet in future, if everyone around is glued to devices?”

As we observe the homogeneous spectacle of heads bent down and eyes staring at screens – our own included – I am contemplating the effects of parents modelling healthy screen and media usage for our children.

Over Chinese New Year, aunties were badgering children and teenagers to lay down their smartphones and talk to relatives – a common sight, I am sure, in many homes during the festive season.

“Please,” quipped a friend. “At my side, aunties were also staring at their screens, watching Korean dramas.”

Unplugging from the smartphone, even for adults, has become a challenge in this swiftly changing world of technology.

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