Electronic devices entertain us, educate us, facilitate multiple modes of our communication, and manage vital aspects of our lives. Consequently, the extent to which we are able to take control of our growing obsession with technology is life-altering, and its effects are becoming increasingly more dominant at early stages of childhood development.
Technology has changed our lives and childhood forever. I say this as a speech and language pathologist who has worked with children for more than 30 years. In this time, I have clearly witnessed the dramatic impact of technology on the early development of children’s language and social skills.
Parents play a key role in determining whether these changes are positive or negative. Understandably, many parents encourage early use of technology in their children to experience its myriad advantages. However, excessive use of devices minimizes the real-life, face-to-face social interactions that are critical for language and social development. Dangers lie in being blind to the serious hindrances to children’s development identified in a number of studies, including delays in language development, difficulties with social interactions, loss of empathy, and decreased ability to focus on educational tasks.
In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) presented results from a study performed at the Hospital for Sick Children in Canada. It was found that there is a strong correlation between extended screen time and increased risk to typical development of expressive language.
Shortly following this study, the AAP published guidelines for digital media use for children und
er five years old. They are as follows:
For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than for video chatting.
Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they are seeing.
For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure the media do not take the place of sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.
My Thoughts on Maintaining the Right Balance. We need to make time for social interactions. Totally unplugging is not a reasonable option, but the creation of balanced, strictly enforced boundaries is. Parents often struggle with finding and maintaining the right balance, as well as determining an appropriate time to adjust the boundaries as children grow and develop. Here are my thoughts.
Vision drives babies’ learning from a very early age. Feeding a newborn can be the perfect time to begin to establish a valuable social connection with eye contact. This golden opportunity is squandered if the parent, instead of establishing eye contact with the infant, is using the time to focus on a phone, a television, or a computer.
Although stroller attachments are available to hold electronic devices, I urge you not to use them. Children need to have time to learn by noticing the world around them, as well as frequently and directly being engaged with adults and other children.
Screen time with children older than 18 months should be limited; used to play games, talk together, and learn together. Young children are not often able to make connections and meaningfully transfer what they see in the 2-dimensional world on a screen to the 3-dimensional real world. I see children who have had few direct interactions with others (and potentially increased screen time) struggle to use their imagination, participate in imaginative play, express themselves, or participate in verbal interactions.
Please put away the devices at mealtime, and talk. At playtime, use toys that encourage creativity, singing, or game playing. Make up a game. Observe to see what your child is interested in and expand on it. Introduce a new adventure and encourage play with others.
Read books. Traditional books may seem boring compared to animated stories on a tablet, that have background noises built in and accompanying activity. These can inhibit the development of problem solving and creative thinking skills in your child. Read a traditional book and engage your child with various comments and questions to stimulate their thought processes.
Most young children love to interact with their Moms and Dads, and they often imitate their parents’ behaviors. If a young child constantly sees a parent focused on a device while attempting to listen and interact with them, they will learn that Mom’s and Dad’s devices are very desirable items -- perhaps more desirable than the attention of the child?
Avoid using a smartphone or tablet as a pacifier to calm a child or soothe a tantrum; or to get a break in restaurants, waiting rooms, or cars. There are other ways to handle these challenging parental moments and although they may seem to be more difficult in the moment, over the long haul they are usually better.
Once children are in school they are expected to use electronic devices for their school work, depending on their grade level. Having monitored screen time can be appropriate, but once again there needs to be a balance. We need to remember that our devices are simply tools that can be used to create, learn, entertain, and connect with others and that other ways exist for us to accomplish things.
The ability to multitask is a valuable trait. However, certain times mandate focusing on a single subject. Research has shown us that students’ grades suffer when they read or write text messages while trying to listen to teacher instructions or lessons. Many people use electronic devices to take notes for a class, a meeting, or a conference. This is may be a good strategy if you take highly accurate notes and are able to review them rigorously later. However, the brain does not process and remember the lesson while it is busy manipulating a keyboard. An alternative would be to handwrite the notes, the old-fashioned way. When writing by hand, it is usually impossible to capture every word, and as a result you are immediately forced to really listen and synthesize the information, which essentially starts your learning process.
As children grow and change through the years, the social levels of expectation rapidly change and increase. It has been my experience that the young adults who have used screen time often as their preferred
means of communication tend to struggle as they navigate their social environments. They may not be able to express themselves well and they can misinterpret subtle facial expressions, as well as other aspects of body language. They also lack perspective taking skills, negotiation skills, and the ability to disagree appropriately. Skilled listeners understand others’ perspectives and express themselves well. While they may be very technology adept, they probably have not let their devices control their lives. Quite often in life we are called upon to be a team player, whether it be as a team member on a project at work, as a volunteer on a committee at your child’s school, as a participant in a community, or on a more personal note, as a partner in a marriage. You do not learn how to be a team member via technology.
Although I believe that it is essential to find and maintain the right balance of technology device use for children, I also think it is critical for us, as adults to do the same. I recently found a collection of TED Talks that focuses on play for adults, with the idea being that play -- not technology -- for adults is not only fun, but makes adults happy and promotes health benefits. Fun, healthy, and happy! Perfect!
So, please find that balance and use your devices as tools, not as something that defines you.
Gail Stolarik is a Speech and Language Pathologist with more than 30 years of experience providing services for children and young adults with speech, language, social learning, and feeding disorders. She is currently working in private practice in Reston, Virginia, and she previously worked in public and private schools. She is certified by the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and licensed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Health Professions. She holds a Masters of Science Degree in Speech and Hearing Science from the University of Illinois.
Gail has earned the ASHA Award for Continuing Education (ACE) for the past three years, indicating a commitment to professional learning. She is certified in PROMPT© (PROMPTS for Restructuring Oral Musculature Phonetic Targets), certified in Phono-Graphix®, (a phonetic-linguistic approach to teach reading), trained in Beckman Oral-Motor Techniques, and utilizes neurodevelopmental (NDT) techniques. She specializes in the treatment and therapy of social learning disorders. She has numerous continuing education hours in Social Thinking® and has completed the Social Thinking® Clinical Training Program.