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Children addicted to 'electronic ayi'
By Wang Jie

Chinese parents and educators are alarmed by Internet addiction with teens and older youth and now very young children are hooked on iPads, smartphones and other entertaining tablets.

For Han Lei, a mother of a five-year-old boy, Steve Jobs is no longer a hero and his Apple's iPad is no longer the beloved "fairy baby-sitter."

"Like many other parents, at first I was amazed by the fancy iPad functions and bought one loaded with interesting games for my boy," says Han, a 35-year-old consultant at a local advertising company. "My workload is heavy, leaving me little time for my son, so I had hoped he could have an "electronic companion," she tells Shanghai Daily.

Han says her son, Song Junhe, used to beg her to repeat his favorite bedtime stories again and again, every night. "I was exhausted," she says, "but the iPad rescued me."

She was filled with praise for inventors of gadgets that songs, told stories and played games with her child.

Han is one of many parents who outsource some baby-sitting to an electronic gadget. The boy and his iPad were inseparable. After four months, his mother decided there was something very wrong.

"He spends more time playing on it and doesn't seem to care whether I'm around. It's terrible that the iPad is indispensable to his little world, but his mother is expendable," Han says.

She has spoken with other parents who have similar problems of iPad obsession with their children.

"Now I doubt whether the iPad is a great leap forward in our modern life or something that hinders our natural, emotional communication," she says.

Li Wenjia, a 26-year-old teacher at Happy Kindergarten, says many children have told her how interesting the iPad games are.

"They are often distracted from studies," she says. "Some even don't want to go to school as they are not allowed to bring an iPad here. I've discussed this with parents, since too much focus on electronic devices might hinder the development of children's communication ability. At their age, they should be eager to explore nature rather than playing in a virtual world."

Today many parents use iPads, iPhones and other smart devices as "electronic nannies" for their kindergartners and older children.

The reasons vary: Sometimes the child is too noisy and parents want to keep him or her quiet. Sometimes parents don't have time to deal with their child and the device gives them a break. Sometimes it's an early education tool in English and arithmetic.

Whatever the reason, the children become addicted.

"I bought an iPad for my four-year-old daughter because all the other children in our residential community have one and it would hurt her not to have one herself," says Ren Hao, a human resources director at a multinational company. At first she struggled because she knew the down side.

"But when everyone around you is playing with one, you seem like an idiot when you have no idea about it," she says. "Having one helps you get along with others and speak the same language. I don't want my daughter isolated from the others."

For grandparents who often care for small children, the iPad is a big help.

"Sometimes when I am fixing dinner, I can't watch my two-year-old granddaughter all the time," says Shen Wen, in her 60s. Then her daughter gave the child an iPad and she is fully occupied while grandmother is cooking.

But many parents underestimate the temptation and enslavement to an iPad and similar electronic gadgets.

"I like it, it has many interesting games, especially when I'm bored or have no friends to play with," says Yang Qi, a six-year-old boy in kindergarten.

But Bao Lifang, Yang's mother, regrets giving him an iPad. She also gave one to her older son in high school, but he isn't fixated and plays with it occasionally; he needs to spend time studying and getting physical exercise.

"But my little boy is totally lost in it. All he thinks about is getting me to load as many games as possible into it," she says.

Bao confiscated the iPad, which ignited what she calls a "fierce war" between mother and son. "I didn't expect his response would be so wild; he cried and shouted for the whole afternoon," she says. "Then I gave up and returned it to him because I could go insane in this uproar. My husband jokes that he acts like a heroin addict."

Feng Yalan, a child psychologist at East China Normal University, says it's irresponsible to give an iPad or similar device to a kindergartner without self control and to take it away abruptly might have negative consequences.

"It is not good to give an iPad to children before age two. Yes, it provides interactive games but it can't replace human communication and interaction," she says.

Small children's over-dependence on iPads and other gadgets can result in problems such as slow development of spoken language, reading and communication, Feng says.

Some parents withhold iPads to punish their children, or dangle them as incentives. "I tell them that this seems effective, but it hurts a small tender heart. Just imagine, if someone takes away your favorite thing without a clear reason, how would you feel?"

The psychologist says she does not allow her own three-year-old daughter to play with computer at home, use a cell phone or iPad; and she can only watch television on Friday night.

"Little kids don't need to experience high technology. I am her best companion. Maternal love cannot be replaced by a cold, electronic thing," she says.

Christine Wu has already "fired" the electronic baby-sitter in steps. "It's not too late for me too realize the bad influence of the iPad on my son," she says. "I didn't remove it abruptly, but gradually diverted his attention to other things. Now he's not obsessed. It's better to nip these things in the bud."

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