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For a child's development: Parent interactions trump devices

While our kids use tech devices occasionally, here's why we should have limits on how often they use them.

Today's guest blogger is Judith L. Page, PhD, CCC-SLP, the 2015 president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. She is associate professor in the Division of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Kentucky.

Sixty-eight percent of parents of two-year olds report their child uses a tablet at home, according to a recent survey of U.S. parents conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. In fact, it is not uncommon for today's toddler to be connected via multiple devices including tablets, smartphones, and video game consoles, the survey showed.

Indeed, 52 percent of the parents ASHA polled say they are concerned that technology negatively impacts the quality of their conversations with their children; 54 percent say they are concerned that they have fewer conversations with their children than they would like because of technology.

Yet, though many parents say they are concerned about the impact of all this technology on their children's speech/language development, hearing, behavior, and academics, they also report relying on it. For instance, more than half say they use technology to keep kids ages 0–3 entertained.

This raises a host of issues, including the potential for devices to divert young children from activity that is critical to their communication development: actively engaging with their parents and other loved ones through talking, reading, singing, and playing. Technology is no substitute for these interactions. Instead of immediately turning to technology, parents can focus on keeping kids involved in the activity at hand, even if it is something like grocery shopping. The key is to talk. While technology is generally easy and effective at keeping a child entertained, its use can become a slippery slope.

I am most troubled by how early the survey indicates this tech use now begins. While the effects of all this technology are not yet fully known, we do know that the most rapid period of brain development for a child occurs before age 3. We also know that verbal communication is the primary way that young children learn. Consequently, it is critical that children are not preoccupied by solitary use of devices during this brief but critical developmental window, but instead are engaged in verbal communication with their parents.

By narrating a chore such as doing laundry, pointing out colors and objects while at the grocery store, or playing a simple game or making up a story together during a car ride, parents can    help their children learn to talk and listen, participate in conversations, and build vocabulary. These speech and language skills are strongly linked to a child's ability to think, form social relationships, and read and write—and increase the odds that the child will have the abilities needed to succeed academically.

One positive finding from the ASHA survey is that a majority of parents report setting parameters around their children's tech use, such as restricting the amount of time per day or the settings where technology may be used. Unfortunately, some of these restrictions are stronger in theory than practice, according to parents' own reporting. In addition to needing more consistent enforcement, parameters around tech use also need to evolve as children get older. Some guidelines for tech use by age include:

Infants and Toddlers—Restrict time spent using devices as much as possible, in favor of talking and interacting. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends zero screen time for children under age 2. If a child is playing on a device, use it with them—participate and ask questions to make it an interactive activity. Devices should be used with parents present, where they can monitor both time spent and content being used/viewed.

Elementary Age Children—No more than 2 hours a day on entertainment (at this age, some schools may be using tablets or other devices as part of instruction). Restrict use of devices during prime communication opportunities such as at the dinner table. In the ASHA survey, parents reported that almost half of 8-year olds are using devices at the dinner table. Children may more frequently begin to use ear buds or headphones at these ages, so teaching safe listening practices (keep devices to half volume and take listening breaks) is important to prevent hearing damage.

Adolescents—Continue to enforce time and setting restrictions, such as at the dinner table. Be vigilant about safe listening. A 2010 study showed hearing loss among 12-19 year olds rose 31% from the late 1980s/early 1990s to mid-2000s, and the World Health Organization stated in March that more than 1 billion young people are at risk for noise-induced hearing loss from noisy leisure activities such as unsafe listening to personal audio devices.

I encourage parents to visit for more information and also to see a certified speech-language pathologist or audiologist if they have concerns about their children's communication health.

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