This year we've been hearing more from the technology industry about the potential consequences of children overusing devices such as tablets and smartphones. It's no longer just experts in children's health who believe that technology could negatively impact conversation and social interaction.
Audiologists have expressed concerns that repeated misuse of personal tech at loud volumes could damage children's hearing. Meanwhile, speech-language pathologists have said their primary concern is that excessive use of devices is replacing conversation and human interaction. If left unaddressed, 68 percent of the communication experts polled by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association said, they foresee widespread tech overuse as a communication "time bomb" that could irreparably damage the communication skills for generations to come.
We asked Lisa Rai Mabry-Price, M.S., CCC-SLP, associate director of school services from ASHA, to tell us more about these issues.hs1tech18
Can you elaborate on this communication "time bomb"?
ASHA started sounding the alarm 10 years ago about noise-induced hearing loss that could result from listening to mp3 players with ear buds or headphones at too-loud volumes — and for too long. However, it's not just about teens blasting music anymore. As tablets and other devices have become more popular with very young children — who may be watching TV shows or using apps with headphones — the risk of hearing loss is especially troubling. Even mild hearing loss can interfere with speech and language development and future academic success.
Speech and language development is dependent upon verbal interaction through talking, singing, reading, and playing through basic everyday interactions. Whether it's children using a device on their own, or a parent too tied up on the phone to be a child's communication partner, this is potentially problematic. It's an area where we are just starting to see research, but it goes back to how we know that speech and language skills develop — and that's through human interaction.
Social communication skills are also in jeopardy due to tech overuse. These skills are developed and honed through daily interaction and include knowing how to take turns during a conversation, using facial expressions, changing the way you speak based on the listener — such as how you talk to a baby versus an adult — and making appropriate eye contact. Such personal interactions are limited as children passively view a screen.
What would you consider over-usage?
Screen time should be limited to one hour of high-quality programs a day for children ages 2 to 5 and further restricted for children under age 2, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. It's important to watch for signs of overuse such as limited or lack of communication with others, lack of physical activity, interrupted sleep, or even vision problems.
What's most important is that there is dedicated time for communication and interaction: device-free dinners to foster family conversation and bonding, bedtime reading, and a device "curfew."
Technology can open the door to many educational opportunities if parents are sharing the experience with their children and guiding them along the way. Parents also need to model tech habits for their children such as taking breaks and leaving the phone in a separate room to avoid jumping at every notification. There are a variety of apps and features on phones that are gaining momentum that can help with tech overuse, if needed.
An important caveat is we are talking about technology that is used for entertainment purposes — not devices that help people communicate because they are nonverbal or have other difficulties called alternative and augmentative communication or AAC devices.
What are some signs that technology is interfering with your child's communication skills?
Whether technology-related or not, it is always important for parents to know the early warning signs of speech/language and hearing disorders. A good resource is ASHA's Identify the Signs campaign, which can be found at identifythesigns.org.
Parents know their child best. Certainly if a child isn't meeting milestones, that warrants an evaluation in addition to considering the role of technology. But there are other situations we hear about from parents. Perhaps it's how Alexa and other voice assistants are affecting the way their child talks or their manners. Maybe an older child seems to have trouble addressing an adult such as ordering food from a waiter at a restaurant. These are practical communication skills that may suffer if not utilized.