How digital connections add stress for both parents and children

19 Dec 2019

Straits Times, 19 Dec 2019, How digital connections add stress for both parents and children
Accompanying the usual flurry of excitement around this year's PSLE results were various notable headlines.
While China unseated Singapore from its pole position in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) evaluating 15-year-old students on their performance in reading, mathematics and science, Singapore, nevertheless, came in second.
Interestingly, the Pisa test introduced a new measure to assess students' fear of failure for which Singapore topped the charts.
Compared with students from other countries, Singapore has the highest percentage of students (78 per cent) agreeing or strongly agreeing with the phrase: "When I am failing, this makes me doubt my plans for the future".
Tellingly, 72 per cent of local students also worry about what others would think of them if they fail, reflecting the resounding weight of failure on their sense of self-worth.
Not surprisingly, therefore, a recent poll commissioned by The Straits Times found that the shadow education industry is expanding, with more than half of primary school pupils being sent for tuition classes at the age of seven or younger.
Wedged between this revealing survey of tuition habits and news about the PSLE and Pisa results was another striking headline - over 300 parents queued for more than six hours overnight to secure enrichment classes for their children at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
Remarkably, their children already had places in the art classes and the prize they sought was the ideal time slot. One mother who was interviewed explained that clinching the desired time slot was crucial to ensuring that her son's timetable, other enrichment classes and family time were all well-coordinated.
These parents' sacrifice was likely to yield handsome dividends time-wise, lubricating the tight corners in their children's over-scheduled lives.
This confluence of societal emphasis on academic performance, the stress on children to excel and their corresponding fear of failure, along with intense parental investment in their children's education do not bode well for fostering happy learners and resilient families.
With major examinations such as the PSLE looming large and early in a child's life, children quickly realise they are judged by their grades, parents do their best to support them in this endeavour and the shadow education industry voraciously feeds on their collective anxieties.
Between school, tuition classes to hone examination skills and enrichment classes to sharpen the child's competitive edge for discretionary admissions or scholarships, parents and children here devote a sizeable proportion of their everyday lives to winning the academic race. And the pressure is amplified by society's growing digitalisation.
In researching for my latest book, Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children In The Digital Age, I encountered many parents who are selfless and tireless in supporting their children's learning. They check their children's schoolbags every night, make sure they have the best nutrition and buy the right books and toys to stimulate their development.
They do their utmost to confer every advantage on their children. And this laundry list of parenting duties has now been extended by a growing slew of digital tasks.
Parent must now manage their children's lives through multiple platforms, including apps for parent-teacher communication, and online gradebooks providing them with data on their children's in-class and test performances.
They can therefore "accompany" their children into the classroom and quiz them on why their in-class performance this week paled in comparison with the last.
Such connectivity between parents and teachers, while seemingly helpful, can complicate the parent-child relationship and over-involve parents in their children's lives.
Parents should refrain from being too concerned with these in-class performance metrics or using them to demand more zealous participation by their children or greater care by the teachers.
Separately, some interviewees would message teachers over trivial matters that their children could have easily managed on their own in school. But when parents take over such tasks, they rob their children of opportunities to develop their problem-solving abilities. Resisting parental intervention in every situation is key to nurturing independence in children.
Besides these official communication channels, there are messaging platforms such as WhatsApp that parents use to communicate with teachers and other parents. Indeed, parents' WhatsApp chat groups are a growing phenomenon in Singapore and beyond. With each new school year, parents are added to chat groups comprising parents of the children in your child's class.
While these massive chat groups can inundate their members with messages, they are a useful resource. Parents whose children are confused about school instructions can quickly reach out for clarifications or obtain a photograph of an elusive spelling list. But these groups do not confine themselves to such instrumental communication.
Some parents share tips on effective tuition programmes or enrichment classes, thereby raising the parenting stakes among all parents. Indeed, some interviewees admitted to feeling pressured when reading such posts, wondering if they should enrol their children in such classes to avoid disadvantaging them.
Others steadfastly refused to be kiasu and cave in to such pressures, even if they acknowledged the benefits of being connected to other parents. Collectively therefore, Singapore needs to dial down this culture of over-sharing and constant comparison, where every post serves to redefine what it means to be a good parent.
The constant notifications from these apps and chats can also be tremendously stress-inducing, with working parents feeling like they have to constantly keep an eye on their children's schedules and homework, even while performing their professional duties.
Perhaps we need to set some norms around when and how such platforms should be used and the expectations around how soon we must respond, so that parents and teachers are less overwhelmed by the constant connectivity.
Overall, these digital connections between parents and teachers, parents with other parents, and parents with their children have broadened the parenting remit and intensified the parenting burden.
Whether at work or at home, whether their children are by their side or out of sight, parents must now transcend all realms and parent relentlessly.
Against the broader backdrop of PSLE, Pisa scores and overnight queues for art classes, one should also bear in mind the implications of such technological intensification for the well-being of parents, children and families in general.
Apart from the dicey issue of whether Singapore society over-valorises academic excellence, one must now contend with digital connections compounding the pressure on parents and children, and exercise restraint in the use of these digital platforms as parents perform their parenting duties.

Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She is also a Nominated Member of Parliament. Her latest book is Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children In The Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2020).