Gadgets and Language Development: Find the Balance

Several years ago, on a visit to enchanting Bhutan, I watched a group of young village children happily playing leap frog in an empty field. My amusement at their antics, jumping and laughing in gay abandon, dissipated as it struck me that it had been a long, long time since I had seen children in Kuala Lumpur playing together in the same gleeful way. My delight at the happy Bhutanese children withered to a sad realization that at home I see children playing video games at children’s parties and observe families seated in restaurants each engrossed in his/her iPad, tablet, net-book, phone or some other form of electronic technology and that, regardless of ethnic background, family members fixate on their individual gadgets making little or no eye contact with each other and the only conversation, if any, is with the waiter.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), I find that parents seeking support for their child’s delayed speech-language development often have a similar complaint and that is their child’s inability to maintain eye contact while interacting with others.  Another common question I am asked is, “What apps can I use to help my child talk?” There are no apps for this!  I have to explain repeatedly that talking involves a human. Of course, there are applications available that provide some learning about visual and auditory stimulation, developing puzzle solving skills, improving vocabulary and phonetics and, of course, good hand eye coordination. However, there is no app that can teach children to talk.  

Exposure to only apps is at the expense of:

…time the child is not playing with his open ended toys

…time not being spent having a back-and-forth conversation with his mother, father and/or siblings and caregivers.

…time not being used to read books with caregivers

…time not being spent outside playing with or without others

…time not spent exploring pretend play with peers

…time not spent leaning how to share with peers

…time not spent building towers with blocks and practicing motor and visual  processing

The situations listed above are vital cogs in the development of good speech, language, social and cognitive skills. Psychological research has shown that toddlers who spend excessive time with gadgets may show a delay in language development and also age-appropriate social skills. The time a child watches a video in order to keep him/her quiet on the way to the supermarket can be used to play I Spy, Twenty (20) Questions, or used to have a discussion about current or upcoming events i.e. a birthday party. Such occasions are fantastic practice for speech, language, communication, problem solving, and critical thinking. The time spent playing video games (which is usually a solitary activity) can be used to play interactive board games with family or in helping to make dinner together, activities that promote family bonding, fosters relationships, as well as encourages/improves speech, language and cognitive skills.

The fundamental element of interaction, technology based or not, is to speak, interact, laugh, establish eye contact, read, play etc.  Technology itself is not the devil and when used in moderation, these tools can be a good way to supplement education, as well as, being a source of entertainment. For example, SLP’s can use an iPad in therapy and there are some amazing apps that can be used to support home practice but it must always be borne in mind that an app cannot replace speech-language therapy. An app cannot teach a child a skill. An app can only allow a child to practice certain skills after first learning it from a person.

So the key is finding the balance between gadgets and Language Development and this is not easy to do. Finding ways to use technology in an ‘active’ rather than a ‘passive’ way is an important step towards finding this balance.  Technology is the ideal babysitter making it easy to keep children entertained and occupied while convincing ourselves that they are ‘learning’ from the ‘educational’ apps. However, the truth is, no matter how wonderful an app is, a child does not learn without quality time exploring with persons with whom they feel safe and comfortable with. Instead of substituting interacting with your child with the use of technology, try and find a way to balance technology and human interaction. Interact with your child, ask questions and participate in his/her life in meaningful ways.

We live in a digital age where people are invested in gadgets and in many cases, are wholly dependent on them with little or no call for them to think or interact. Seeing people of all ages and all walks of life engrossed in gadgets is the norm now. A huge concern is knowing when and where to set appropriate boundaries in relation to mobile devices.  I was among those who fought the smart phone craze when it was first introduced because I was sick of seeing people check their emails or be otherwise absorbed in their iPhones while in the midst of company.  Unfortunately, nowadays I am guilty of doing the same on occasion but I make it a point not to ‘consult’ my phone in company unless absolutely necessary. As the saying goes “There is a time and place for everything” – this is so true for our digital gadgets.

Whether we like it or not, technology is here to stay, and in some cases, technology may be beneficial for certain children. Restrict the amount of time a child spends on media but do not deny your child’s use of media. Build on the child’s interests in order to get positive interactions going between the child and yourself or others.  By tuning in to your child’s spontaneous interests, introducing your child to possible media uses, discussions, elaboration, negotiation, joint play and/or other shared uses, you, as a parent, can promote interaction and conversation with the child by using technology and media.

What you can do:

1.    Interaction is key - No matter what you are engaged in, whether it is preparing a meal or looking at an app together, the key to helping your child learn is to engage in conversations about the things that s/he is interested in. You can watch, play and listen with your child. Ask the child what s/he thinks of the content. Share your values with your child and help the child relate/repeat to you what s/he has learnt in media, events and other activities in which the child is involved in. The passive or isolated use of technology is unlikely to build language and literacy skills because the child is not engaged in interactions.

2.    Keep the conversation going – Let your child help you choose the ring tone for your mobile phone or the background for your tablet. Keep the conversation going about the differences.

3.    Make it natural - While playing an alphabet app, take turns to hit the keys. Talk about what you can see and what you think about the visuals/sounds that are being generated. Make an attempt to make it natural and not to allow the child to dictate pace. Instead encourage adjustment and conversation with you.

So, it is very important to keep in mind that while media can be used to motivate interactions with children and can also be used to enhance some elements of education, such devices need to be used interactively with children. Technology should never be used to keep a child quiet or if you need “time off”. If children are to use technology, you, as parents, should be right there with them – joining in and following their lead in order to create an ideal environment for learning language. Always remember, the best way children learn language and literacy skills is during natural, fun interactions and conversations with the important people in their lives.

In the final analysis, the use of technology should be a choice and not a compulsion.  A good way to gain perspective is to step away and reflect on whether technology serves us or do we serve technology?  Is it functional or dysfunctional? The answer will lay the foundation for a long-term constructive, enriching relationship with technology.

Jennifer E. Peters is Kuala Lumpur-based Consultant Speech-Language Pathologist & RDI® Consultant (specifically for Autism) who has made meaningful communication her life-long vocation.

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Jennifer Peters-Lee

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