Smartphone “addiction” among some Cambodian children is driving parents to frustration.

“It’s really, really hard to stop her from using electronic devices and watching YouTube,” says NGO worker Neang Sovantha of her 5-year-old daughter, Sovath Ousa.

“If we don’t hand her a smartphone, she will not eat rice.”

Sovantha says she is worried that excessive smartphone use will give Ousa poor eyesight, and that it is already leading to fewer interactions between mother and daughter.

“[She] becomes lazy, not wanting to talk or get involved with us,” Sovantha says. “It’s really bad.”

She has tried to persuade her daughter every way she could think of, but the 5-year-old’s thirst for YouTube remained until recently.

About three months ago, Sovantha and her daughter went to see an action comedy film at a movie theater. In one scene, a snake burst out of the protagonist’s eye. Her daughter was terrified.

“I took the chance and told her that if she looks at her smartphone too much, a snake will also come out of her eyes,” Sovantha says. “Since then, she only goes on her smartphone once or twice a week.”

She doesn’t feel good about manipulating her daughter, but it is hard to know what else to do, she says.

The American Association of Pediatrics has said that excessive time spent watching electronic media is linked to obesity, lack of sleep, school problems, aggression and other behavioral issues. It recommends less than one or two hours a day of “entertainment screen time” for children.

Last year, the World Health Organization also issued guidelines for children under 5 advising that “sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better.”

Replacing screen time with physical activity and interacting with caregivers would improve motor and cognitive development, WHO said.

“Some researchers are convinced that we are facing an addiction unlike any other,” a 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry said, noting similarities between smartphone use and other addictions. “If we observe the equivalence of its symptoms with the criteria for substance addiction or pathological gambling, a great parallelism is confirmed … We consider that, in effect, we are facing an addiction.”

Rosdra Kanchaly, director of Caring Heart Daycare in Phnom Penh, says about 80 percent of children arriving at her center seems to have some trouble learning to speak, and suggests excessive smartphone use is to blame.

The center caters for children aged 3 months to 6 years, and Kanchaly says social interaction among children is key to their learning.

“Children who spend most of their time on screen might have problems with verbal communication or social interaction because for children if they use their eyes focusing too much on a phone, they lose their focus on speaking — [acquiring] speaking ability will be slow,” Kanchaly says.

The children also seem to have fewer social interactions in their living situations because in many households both parents need to work, she adds.

Hem Vibol, who has two children aged 7 and 3, says cutting smartphone use completely is too hard and seems counterproductive.

Instead, she tries to steer her children to watch educational videos and limit the time they spend on screens, she says.

“I let my kids watch videos on YouTube to learn English words, and to keep them silent when I’m busy,” Vibol says.

She acknowledges that without setting hard limits, her children’s appetite for YouTube is hard to control. So she puts a password on her phone and scolds her children if they don’t listen when she tells them to stop watching a video. Avoiding smartphone use at night has also helped, she says.

“If I let her watch videos before she sleeps, the first thing she asks for right after waking up is the phone again,” she says of her youngest. “It is no good.”