What do smartphones do for your child’s brain?

Boys Laughing with Video Game

Research is clear about the benefits of face-to-face parent-child interactions over watching TV. Children have a much better chance to learn new vocabulary from human interactions than from a TV programme (here’s why), including even those which have been designed with a very young audience in mind. A new experimental study shows that parents interact less and say fewer things to their toddlers, when the TV is on in the background than when it is not. Another new study shows that having TV on in the background diverts young children’s attention away from play and learning. In this latter study, exposure to non-age-appropriate TV is associated with poorer cognitive abilities.

But time spent on TV and other media impacts not only young children’s language and cognitive abilities. Time spent on TV and gaming adversely affects the development of young children’s social skills and emotional understanding. A recent experimental study found that children’s emotional intelligence (specifically, their ability to recognize emotions) improved when they had the opportunity to interact with their peers for 5 smartphone-free days. A recent nation-wide study in the UK involving 5,000 children aged between 10 and 15 years, also reveals fewer emotional and social problems among those who spend less than an hour a day on video games.

Research about the psychological impact of children’s access to smart phones is still playing catch-up, but findings from a 2014 study involving 3,604 children links longer use of electronic media to poorer mental well-being among children as young as 2 to 6 years of age. In this study, young children’ emotional problems increase with each additional hour they spend watching TV and/or playing electronic games.

In short, it’s important to provide your children with opportunities to learn through social interactions and face-to-face conversations. Looking for some alternatives to electronic media and TV programming? Here are some ways to boost your child’s learning:

1. Read to your kids
“The number of words a child hears in early life will determine their academic success and IQ in later life”. This fact is the one reason why boosting your child’s early spoken language skills and capacity for understanding speech is so important.

A host of studies find that reading to young children promotes their language, reading, thinking, motor, emotional and social skills (here’s the science explained). The tendency for mums to read and talk to their babies while breastfeeding them, may also be the reason why breastfed children score well on IQ tests and at school.

A new study shows that reading to children as early as 9 months of age boosts school readiness in terms of their maths and reading skills.

2. Choose picture books with a story
Reading benefits children’s language in the long-term, when parents read picture books with a story rather than flashcard-type picture books. A 2014 study shows that toddlers could learn sophisticated animal facts when parents read to them from a book where animals were part of a story.

3. Engage in conversations with your baby
Babies often sound like they’re just making gurgly sounds when they haven’t learnt to say words which we use. But a new study shows that if mothers vocally respond to their baby’s babbling as if having a conversation with their baby, infants are more likely to develop language earlier.

4. Napping is good for the young ones too
A 2014 study shows that infants and preschoolers are better at retaining newly learnt information after they nap. Here’s a bit more evidence for the importance of sleep.

5. Feed your baby’s brain with frequent snacks
A 2013 local study found that toddlers whose parents spent more time reading to their children and who had snacks in addition to their main meals, to have relatively larger vocabularies. A 2007 study finds that breakfast foods which provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain (which, not surprising consumes far more energy among young children than adults), such as oats, helps children maintain their attention in class.

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Tips and tricks for parents to get through the exams

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The local schooling culture can be pretty punishing on children. The emphasis tends to be on results, specifically academic ones. Parents have high expectations for their children.

So parents try their best to get their children to attend a school with a reputation for turning out solid academic results (even though according to the Ministry of Education, all schools are good schools).

Even if chasing a good-school dream is not one of all parents, good grades are still the goal of most parents (even though we will willingly acknowledge that strengthening children’s social skills and their capacity to understand and manage their emotions are important goals too).

The costs of this exam-oriented culture are papable. A third of children surveyed in a 2001 UNICEF survey expressed their greatest fear to be failure at examinations and tests. Stress responses and burnout among primary school children are well-documented. And parents are not unaware about the amount of stress experienced by their children: Academic stress is the top concern of parents.

But tuition is not the only way to learn.

What can research tell us about the best ways to learn?

1. Take notes by hand
In the good ol’ days, handouts were sparse and everyone took notes by hand. It’s different now: Laptops are everywhere these days.

But there may be a good reason to return to the good ol’ days: A 2014 study found that undergraduates were as good at remembering facts when they wrote their notes as when they typed them out.

But those who took notes by hand were much better at retaining conceptual information. This is likely explains why #2 (see below) reliably produces good retention of study material.

2. Explain it in your words
Researchers recommend elaborative interrogation. That’s a fancy word for saying students learn best by generating an explanation for why a fact or concept is true. We remember facts better when we’re preparing to teach it to someone else. Try it and you’ll find that it works.

3. Throw away the highlighter
Highlighting or underlining key words and phrases in the textbook is a waste of time. So is re-reading the textbook. Don’t copy definitions or textbook explanations verbatim in order to remember them. Instead, rephrase them using your own words (see #2).

4. Keep testing yourself
One way to know if you’ve learnt anything is to review the main concepts using the self-test questions at the end of a chapter. Testing yourself on the same material several times but spread out over an extended period of time (known as distributed practice) is one reliable method to study. It strengthens our memory for concepts and facts already studied.

5. Using imagery and mnemonics to learn
Not all studies show that using imagery and mnemonics to remember concepts help with learning. It may be that these two strategies help students in some contexts, but not others.

6. Study two or three subjects together
Studies show that we’re better at retaining information previously studied if we study and test ourselves using interleaved practice. This means tackling different subtopics or different subjects in a single study session. It also means randomly shuffling questions from different subtopics or subjects into a single quiz.

7. The truth about learning styles
It’s true that we typically have a preferred way to absorb new material. We may prefer to have things illustrated rather than expressed in words. We may prefer hands-on learning via interactions than didactic-style lectures. But there’s little evidence that superior performance results from being taught in our preferred style of learning. Need more convincing? Read this article from Huffington Post.

8. Stay warm
A 2014 study found that test performance was optimized when participants were allowed to solve problems at their preferred temperature. Those who liked it warm did better at 25 deg C., while those who liked it cooler did better at 15 deg C.. Sweaters are exam essentials for those who like to stay warm.

And what about helping your kids manage exam stress?

Local resources like Focus on the Family suggest helping children make a study plan. The National Library of Singapore has recommended reading for parents.

Tips from HPB for managing exam stress include yoga, deep breathing exercises, eating calming foods, and listening to music. These may be useful to university students. As for learning to say no, we can just see parents letting their kids skip on household chores and family meals now.

Research indicates the following to be effective ways to help children manage exam stress:

  • Use words of encouragement
    A classic study showed that children whose teachers had low expectations of their academic performance performed more poorly compared to children whose teachers expect great things from them.Use encouragement to motivate your children. Avoid using threats or making predictions that they will fail. Because children will try to live up to your expectations.
  • Reward children’s behaviours
    A 1998 study found that children were more willing to try a more challenging task if parents praised their children’s efforts rather than praised their children for being clever. This means rewarding your children for their behaviour not for their intelligence.
  • Sleep is important
    A 2014 JAMA Pediatrics study found that children who got more sleep performed better at school. There’s plenty of evidence that sleep is essential for the brain to consolidate and store what has been learnt in long-term memory.
  • Complex carbs for breakfast
    Studies show that breakfast is important for classroom learning. But two previous studies — published in 2007 and 2003 — found that a low glycaemic index breakfast (like oats) helped children maintain their attention on cognitive tasks through the morning.
  • Don’t forget to express your care and concern
    A 2014 study examined the characteristics of the Tiger Mum parenting style. The researchers conclude that American Asian children don’t resent parental pressure because they also experience support from parents. So don’t forget to tell your children that you care about them (not just their grades).

 

 

When is it a good time to talk about smoking?

Smoking begins early. A survey in 2000 found that a quarter of teenagers had smoked before, and more than 1 in 10 had smoked in the past month. Telling your children not to smoke doesn’t work. So what does?

Prisoner Holding Cigarette Between Bars

Talk to your kids about the health risks of nicotine before addictions take over!

1. Talk to your kids before they are teenagers!
It turns out that if you haven’t already started smoking by age 18, you’re not really going to start. Smokers tend to start young, so it’s important to get them to hear the message early. So talk to your kids about the effects of smoking before they are teenagers!

2. Nagging is not a communication strategy
Parent-child talks are more effective when you invite your children to participate in a two-way conversation and when you use a tone that shows that you care.

3. Speak the same language as your kids
Not every teenager cares about the long-term effects of smoking (lung cancer, head and neck cancer, heart attacks, stroke). They may not care about the effects of secondhand smoke.

Such facts don’t work as well as telling teenagers about wrinkly skin and yellow teeth, which result from tobacco use. Here’s a fact sheet that’s been designed for teens.

4. Be supportive
Teenage brains are more susceptible to becoming dependent on nicotine than those of adults. You can have a more meaningful conversation with your teenager if you can stay away from sounding judgemental, accusatory, or condescending. 

5. Using peer pressure to your advantage
A recent study found peer pressure works both ways. But it’s more common for smoking teenagers to introduce their non-smoking peers to tobacco than the other way around. Non-smoking teenagers are relatively less successful at dissuading peers from smoking. 

It might be because teenagers lack knowledge about the more effective ways to quit tobacco. Do you have The Knowledge? (Here are more resources for teenagers).

6. How to be cool (but not smoke)
Or it may be that peer pressure works because smoking is seen as being cool. Consumer research show that being cool is about breaking rules which are seen as unfair or unnecessary, while not breaking legitimate rules.

So that means campaigns will be effective if they educate teenagers that they can choose to stop smoking. And that’s what the research says: A 1999 study showed that teenagers, who made an independent decision not to smoke, reduced their smoking in subsequent months.

7. Beware the effect film noir has on your kids
Movies which glamourize smoking may have an unintended effect on you and your family.

In a recent study, young adults were more likely to endorse alcohol use after watching movie clips where alcohol was portrayed in a good rather than bad light, even though alcohol consumption was not the main theme of any of the movies watched. This likely applies to tobacco as well.

No one makes movies like they used to. But you might want to talk to your kids about the reality behind Hollywood’s golden age after you and the kids watch To Have and Have Not.

8. Children who stay in school longer are less likely to smoke
It’s been known for a while that there are fewer smokers among those with more years of education. A 2014 study found that those who smoked at age 16 were more likely to be smokers as adults and less likely to have a university degree.

But having better problem-solving abilities does not explain this trend. Rather, family factors are likely to be responsible. Teenagers who feel connected to their parents and are monitored by their parents are less likely to smoke.

9. Do what you preach
Children learn by example. Those with parents who smoke are 3 times more likely to smoke. A 2006 study conducted in New Zealand found that parental smoking was responsible for an estimated 40% of teenagers who smoked.

Your children playing 4D and Toto: What are the odds?

The next World Cup is in 2018 and in Russia. Local anti-gambling ads will perhaps be less eager to give out hot tips which get extra airtime and special attention on US talk shows. But majong tables will likely make their annual appearance at Chinese New Year celebrations next year. And the lure of the national lottery is evergreen anyway.

Dicey games

The prevalence of problem gambling is declared to be stable at 1% of the adult population in the States. And that’s the number that’s been documented for locals too: The 2011 report by the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates 1.4% of the adult population to be probable pathological gamblers (read this review for information about the worldwide trends in problem gambling). In contrast, problem gambling is on the rise in UK where there is access to remote or online gambling (local legislation is likely to deter such gaming).

Although only 1 in 100 or so are pathological gamblers, it’s a problem which affects as many as 24,000 locals (and possibly more). According to H2 Gambling Capital, the amount that the average adult resident lost through gambling last year was S$1,189 (see the graph from the 2011 Economist article “The biggest losers”). Not a terribly small sum.

True, there are relatively few problem gamblers – these are people who show more and more interest in gambling, who feel the need to bet more money more often to experience the excitement and/or make up for previous losses, who experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability when they try to stop, and feel a loss of control as they gamble even when faced with serious adverse consequences.

But here are some facts you may not be aware of:

1. Recent estimates put problem gambling among young adults in the States at 6 to 9 percent. Although only 3 in 100 local youths are problem gamblers, according to a 2007 local study, it is still a higher proportion, relative to adults.

2. One third of problem gamblers seeking treatment were exposed to gambling before their 18th birthday.

3. Betting on poker-cards, mahjong, and the national lottery starts at the average age of 14 years.

4. A 2014 study found that those with initial losses at horse-racing and football (soccer) bets were more likely to lose in their subsequent bets, and that the likelihood of them winning was even lower than chance! Another 2014 study suggests betting behaviour has a genetic basis involving genes which regulate the pleasure-producing hormone known as dopamine.

5. Signs and symptoms of a young problem gambler include an unexplained need for money, unexplained charges on credit card bills, withdrawal from friends/family, depressed mood, feelings of anxiety, sudden decline in grades, and/or loss of interest in things which he/she was previously interested in.

6. Problem gambling is more likely for teens with a parent with a gambling problem, who engaged in gambling at an earlier age, and/or who are given to impulsivity (risk factors listed here).

7. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing (MI) are found to be effective in treating problem gambling (read this fact sheet). Using as a complementary therapy with CBT and MI, mindfulness can be effective in helping individuals reducing their gambling behaviours.

8. Most games are based purely on chance. Here’s a look at how they work. And if that’s not convincing, play this game and take this gambling IQ quiz to understand how the house always wins.

9. Ways to help someone with a problem gambling concern, include providing emotional and social support and listening without being judgemental. Here’s a guide on how to talk to others (including your children) about problem gambling in the family.

10. Interventions are available with the National Addictions Management Service and the National Problem Gambling helpline. But parents may want to start by talking to their kids about gambling in a loving and caring way (here’s a fact sheet).

The odds? The answers are all here.