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Lifestyle: Experts recommend limiting children's smartphone use

A girl is seen absorbed in using a smartphone. (Mainichi)

Experts are recommending that children's smartphone use be kept to a moderate level, while the head of a preschool is advocating the controlled use of smartphone-like technologies in children's education.

    A variety of smartphone apps for young children exist, including ones that play children's songs, or offer games of dress-up or raising animals. Many parents use apps like these to satisfy their children.

    However, in 2013 the Japan Pediatric Association began advising parents to not let smartphones serve as their babysitters. It recommends that young children not be exposed to more than two hours of digital media a day, which includes DVDs and television. The association says that if parents make a habit of using smartphones to calm their children, they can warp their development. The children will lose time that could have been spent on conversation with their parents or on sharing experiences, and parents can also grow careless in how they watch after their children's safety.

    Hiromi Utsumi, a director for the association, says that if young children spend too much time with smartphones and don't have enough real-life communication, it might lead to smartphone dependency later in life or poorly developed social skills. Furthermore, since smartphones are viewed from up close, more so than television is, they have a very bad effect on the eyes. If children spend less time playing outside, their athletic ability will also suffer. For three years the association has been warning about such problems, and while parents who have heard these warnings have tended to keep smartphone use limited, there are still parents who don't know about these issues, and the gap between parents on how much they let their children use smartphones is widening, Utsumi says.

    In particular, the younger parents are, the more comfortable they are with smartphones, and their children may emulate these parents when they see them using the devices. Utsumi says, "Smartphones are not toys, so parents have to keep control over them. When a parent has a child they have to give their own lifestyle a second look."

    The association recommends that children do not spend all their time on the internet but instead play with parents and friends. The association plans to make a new poster promoting this idea.

    The Japan Internet Safety Promotion Association conducted a mail survey from December of last year to January this year and received responses from 1,184 parents of children ranging from newborns to third-grade elementary students. Among the parents of children who were not yet enrolled in school, 64 percent said they were allowing their children to use the internet in some form. By device, 38 percent were allowing their children to use smartphones and 23 percent were allowing them to use tablet devices. Meanwhile, 59 percent of those parents said they worried about the physical and athletic development of their children and 54 percent said they were worried about their children becoming addicted to the internet, suggesting that parents are letting their children use internet devices despite their worries about the effects of doing so.

    Masakazu Sugimoto, head of Tsurumine day care center in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, gives a presentation about using technology in children's education, in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi)

    According to an internet survey by IT company Digital Arts, about 80 percent of 103 mothers with children aged 3 or younger said they had been surprised by their children using smartphones in ways they hadn't expected, such as by watching videos or activating the smartphone's camera. The company, meanwhile, has created a mini-guidebook for parents of young children on smartphone use, urging them to set household rules on the devices' usage. Smartphones have settings like limits on how long they can be used or what times the internet can be used, and the company suggests parents make use of these settings.

    One cause for concern is the effect of smartphones on eyesight. According to health statistics from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, last year the percentage of young children below school age with less than perfect vision was 26.8 percent, a jump from the 20.3 percent of 10 years before then. Kazuo Tsubota, a professor of ophthalmology at Keio University School of Medicine, says, "If children spend less time outdoors, they are exposed to a higher risk of becoming short-sighted. The reasons why are not fully known, but the collapse of the body's circadian rhythm (biological clock) is one reason. Exposure to blue light (from smartphone screens) at night will also disrupt the biological clock." He advises that parents prepare time for children to play outside and not let them use smartphones at night.

    On the other hand, there are some educational facilities that are making positive use of smartphones. On Sept. 9, a seminar by advertisement and publishing company Recruit was held in Tokyo on the topic of children's education. Masakazu Sugimoto, head of Tsurumine day care center in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture, explained to an audience of around 100 about using technology in education. His preschool, while making use of its location in a nature-rich farming village to expose children to the outdoors, also uses iPads to teach its students. Using video chat technology and a translation app, the students chat with high school students in the United States and children at day care facilities in China. They also watched children in Yamagata Prefecture ski, something they can't experience in snowless Kagoshima Prefecture, on the internet.

    The school has also introduced "presentation time," where children use images and movies on the iPads to give presentations. In one case, a child from a farming family used a picture of a pig giving birth to explain life on the farm. They have also used various other technologies, such as a digital coloring book where a dinosaur colored by a child then moves around in 3D.

    Sugimoto recalls, "The first time I saw the happy expressions of the children who used these devices, I thought that these technologies are essential." At the preschool digital technology is something to deepen communication, and he says he limits use of it at the preschool to about one 15-minute session a week.

    Sugimoto's policy is a reminder that in this age of information and increased technology-use, we must make an effort to keep young children's smartphone usage time in moderation.

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