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[Weekender] Does screen-free parenting work?

(123rf)
(123rf)
Annie Jeong has always been concerned about her 3-year-old son’s exposure to digital devices.

She became more worried recently after learning about the rise of screen-free parenting. But such a scheme is a tall order, she said.

With digital-driven education permeating classrooms across South Korea, the use of digital devices and software has become a necessity for the future generation.

“I’m worried that my kid might be in trouble in the future if he grows up tech-free,” said Jeong, who works at a venture investment firm in Seoul.

“These days, elementary school teachers tell kids to make a slideshow for presentations, so kids are forced to learn how to use the software to do homework. Teachers also tend to give assignments to kids in a messenger app’s group chat room.”

Jeong is one of many parents in one of the world’s most-wired countries caught in a dilemma in the face of the sweeping yet irreversible trend of mobile penetration over the past decade, especially with the knowledge of the dangers of smartphone addiction.

The government has kept an eye on the rise of smartphone addicts among those aged between 3 and 9, over 20 percent of whom are either classified as “at risk of addiction” or “potentially prone to overdependence” as of 2018.

Of all age categories, according to a survey led by the Ministry of Science and ICT last year, those between 3 and 9 showed the steepest rise in smartphone overdependence, by 1.6 percentage points on-year.

In the past couple of years, Korean media reports have suggested that “digital detox” -- staying away from devices for a certain period of time -- could help to fight smartphone addiction.

In addition, some parents in Korea, concerned about their kids becoming addicted, benchmarked screen-free parenting practices by Silicon Valley tech gurus, like Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

They believed that banning their kids from smart technologies would help them fully engage in learning, stave off addiction and prevent harmful effects on their brains.

But the movement turned out to be short-lived, as Korean parents like Jeong found it impractical.

“We cannot ban cars for fear of car accidents,” Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University, told The Korea Herald.

Experts say smartphone overuse is a by-product of a new era.

Mobile phones have created a new ecosystem where people are connected to the internet 24/7, and younger generations regard the sense of being connected online as a basic need, according to the book “People Born in 1990s Are Coming,” authored by Lim Hong-tek.

Choi Jae-boong, a mechanical engineering professor at Sungkyunkwan University, called it the “evolution of human beings,” citing people’s spontaneity behind their choice of smartphone use and the shift to a smartphone-powered era, in his book “Phono Sapiens: New Human Race Created by Smartphone”

Choi noted that the tech-savvy younger generations have created a sense of identity in a digital world. They are reshaping the world as software developers and entrepreneurs, based on their understanding of a civilization powered by the internet.

Adult play a crucial role in helping kids navigate the digital world while preventing addiction.

Another Korean parent, surnamed Bak, said the problem is inappropriate online content -- not owning smartphones.

“It is wrong to say that lessons can only be learned from hardcopy books and offline materials,” said Bak, a company builder and father of an 11-year-old. “Children can still learn a lot from quality digital content.”

“The internet is actually teeming with decent educational content,” Choi of Sungkyunkwan University told The Korea Herald.

“It’s the adults that are binging on eating shows, gaming videos, political content and sports videos online. They end up assuming that kids would also be hooked on such content as well. Through conversations, adults should help kids discover topics they are interested in, find relevant online content and discuss them together.”

Kwak of Seoul National University said parents are often indiscreet when using smartphones as tools to simply silence their kids.

“Kids can be prone to digital overuse if parents treat mobile devices like babysitters and overuse them for the sake of their own convenience,” Kwak said.

By Son Ji-hyoung (consnow@heraldcorp.com)
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