Singapore children using digital screens

Singapore children using digital screens. Representative photo courtesy: Facebook/Ong Ye Kung

Children get easily addicted to gadgets, and the entry age for gadget use has been steadily dropping around the world. Two ministers in Singapore have taken note of a recent warning on this subject by US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy and they plan to roll out initiatives for controlling device use in the 0-6 age group.

A recent Facebook post, published by Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Health, and Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for Health, took note of the US surgeon general’s warning. It said that the Singapore ministries “share the concerns” and that the two ministries “will finalise and announce” device-control initiatives “in the coming few months”.

The post said: “Dr Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, has recently called for a warning label on social media platforms. He argued that mental health condition amongst young people constitutes an emergency. Social media, which is addictive by design, is likely an important contributor.

“Although some commentators disagree with this hypothesis, in an emergency, Dr Murthy argued that we cannot afford to wait for the debate to be concluded. We need to act and put in place measures now.

“Ministry of Health, Singapore (MOH) and MSF Singapore (MSF) share the concerns expressed by Dr Murthy. Our PM has described tackling the mental health challenge as a national priority.”

There have been a series of studies in recent years on how excessive gadget use impacts the mental health of young people, as the Internet tightens its grip on the human mind.

Singapore itself published a study in July 2013 that was led by Dr Nirmala Karuppiah from the early childhood and special education academic group, National Institute of Education (NIE). For this study, the researchers visited the homes and schools of 60 children of pre-school age to observe their device use.

This study found that while the gadgets brought some educational benefits to the children, there were many undesirable side-effects, such as skipping meals to finish games; tantrums and refusal to hand over the device; eye strain from excessive screen time; posture problems; adverse effect on socialising skills etc.

Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Health, Singapore
Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Health, Singapore. Photo: www.pmo.gov.sg

The two ministers’ Facebook post said: “The impact of social media on mental health is not an unintuitive concept. Today, young minds are exposed to information, interactions and behaviors they do not have the maturity for; it takes away time for physical play and interactions, all of which can affect them profoundly as they grow up.”

Citing how habits starting too early could become second nature, the post said: “The starting point is screen time for the very young, 0-6 years old. This shapes their habits in social media usage.”

The ministers’ post referred to a long-term study undertaken by Singapore, named GUSTO. This study followed, for years, the development of children born in 2009.

Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development, Singapore
Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for Health, Singapore. Photo: www.pmo.gov.sg

“The impact of screen time on child development is a key line of inquiry of our local research effort, GUSTO (Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes). Into its 14th year, this is a major longitudinal survey of a cohort of children conceived in 2009,” said the post.

“One published finding was that pervasive screen time at age 12 months altered cortical EEG activity before age two years, and negatively affected executive function of the child at age nine years.

“Another study found that screen time in infancy contributes to enduring individual differences in topological brain restructuring. Simply put, screen time exposure compromises the brain development of young children.

“Another yet to be published study explores how the linkage between how brain development and executive function of a child affects their mental wellness.”

Based on the research done in Singapore and in other countries, the Ministry of Health issued in March 2023 a formal advisory on screen use in children.

“For children under 18 months, parents are advised to discourage any screen use unless it is for interactive video chatting. For children between 18 months and 36 months old, we advised to limit total screen use to less than one hour a day. Older children should also avoid screen use during meals and one hour before bedtime,” said the post.

Following the issuance, this advice was “regularly and routinely given by healthcare professionals to expecting parents” at public hospitals and polyclinics in Singapore.

Acknowledging that digital devices and the Internet were now practically indispensable, the post said: “Electronic devices and social media have become part of our lives. Our young need to use them properly, to enhance their lives, and not inadvertently undermine their mental wellness. We will need more decisive and effective measures to shape the habit of device usage.”

To this end, the post added: “Over the past months, MOH and MSF have been discussing this issue. Between MOH and MSF, we oversee the key touch points for children up to 6 years old, through child and maternity care, and pre-schools.

“We can make our advice clearer and more definitive; we need to deliver them consistently across all healthcare settings, with more reminders; we need to put them into practice in pre-schools; and we need to find ways to encourage their adoption at home.

“We will finalise and announce these initiatives in the coming few months. In the meantime, we hope parents will familiarise yourself with the current MOH guidance on screen use in children at http://go.gov.sg/screen-use-in-children.

“We know that Singaporean parents always want the best for their children. The impact of screen time on [a] young child can be profound, and we need to take steps to ensure appropriate usage, protect our young ones against likely long-term harm.”

The post was concluded with a small joke by the ministers: “Sorry for the long post, and contributing to your screen time.”