Think, for a moment, about the day-to-day life of a 2-year-old.
They’ve conquered walking, and potty training is on the horizon. Words are springing forth and the assertiveness that comes with life experience is already testing the little one’s parents. Nothing in the house is safe anymore.
More than two-thirds of 2-year-olds are also using tablets, more than half dawdle on smart phones, and 1 in 4 are deploying some form of technology at the dinner table.Even babies, not even a year old, are being pulled in, according to a new study.
If this last paragraph stopped you, it should, because when the consumption of technology eclipses or begins to diminish social interactions with very young children, we have a problem — and a big one. The image of a group of toddlers sitting apart, all engaged in their devices rather than playing together, isn’t some far-off notion.
We know intuitively, after all, that overuse of technology can translate to an underuse of speech and other forms of human-to-human communication. Anyone who has traveled by subway, walked through an airport or, really, seen people in any public setting knows that adults live in their devices: ear buds in, heads down. The difference, though, is that we grew up without these devices — and that’s an important distinction.
Today’s children are in uncharted waters. We don’t fully understand yet how this technological immersion is helping or harming the development of their ability to communicate. However, we do know that nothing substitutes for human interactionwhen it comes to speech and language development — not even technology. Hearing-wise, technology can do outright damage if it is allowed to repeatedly emit unsafe sound levels close to the ear.
The early years are also when children are most malleable, as the most rapid period of brain development takes place before age 3. During this time, the primary way young children develop their speech and language abilities is through human communication, something technology simply cannot duplicate. The less time they’re conversing, the less opportunity these children will have to develop strong speech and language skills.
Meanwhile, younger and younger children are gaining access to technology that could end up harming their hearing if it is used unsafely. Thanks in part to misuse of wildly popular technology, the problem of unsafe listening has risen to a global level. Recently, the World Health Organization launched a campaign to reduce it.
How young are tech users? This spring, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association just released a poll of 1,000 parents of children ages 0-8. Some of the results are eye-opening:
- 68% of these parents’ 2-year-olds use tablets; 59% use smartphones and 44% use video game consoles.
- 55% of parents voice concern that misuse of technology might be harming their children’s hearing; with respect to speech and language skills, the figure is 52%.
- 52% say they are concerned that technology negatively impacts the quality of their conversations with their children, with about the same percentage saying they have fewer conversations than they would like because of technology.
- Hearing loss among children is a concern; 72% of parents polled agree that loud noise from technology might lead to hearing loss in their children. Couple that withresearch showing that one in five Americans 12 and older has hearing loss that makes communication difficult, and you can begin to see the enormity of the problem.
The poll, though startling, was not all bad news. A vast majority of the surveyed parents reported putting limits on their children’s use of technology. The efficacy of those efforts, however, seemed to weaken over time. The meaningful enforcement of rules, though adjusted as children grow and their interests change, is essential if developmental needs are going to be effectively addressed.
As a speech language pathologist, I advise parents that there is no substitute —technological or otherwise — to developing vocabulary and communication skills through organic conversations and real exchanges. Listening, talking, reading and interacting with their parents and others is the best and only way children can build a sound foundation for a lifetime of communication.
So as families begin to gear up for those summer trips — whether long car rides or cross-country flights — I encourage parents to take a moment to think about how their children are using technology. Are the ear buds blasting, potentially jeopardizing their hearing? Is conversation now relegated to yes-no exchanges rather than meaningful dialogue that cultivates vocabulary and builds social skills? Is a child even aware of his or her surroundings and the human interplay?
Technology has thrust humanity forward in ways we could not have imagined just a generation ago. But should devices come to rule our world — and starve our children of human interaction — society, and especially children, could well pay a terrible price in communication ability.