Watch & Learn

60991453 - little girl sitting on sofa with a smart phone. happy child playing indoors.

// by Ashley Williams

The average child has at their fingertips far more technology than their parents ever did.

It has become the norm for youngsters barely approaching their preteens to sport the latest iPhones and other gadgets. A vast number are fluent with mobile apps and tablets well before they can write or even speak complete sentences. A 2015 study revealed that babies are getting their first taste of technology at as young as six months old. By their first birthday, at least one in seven kids engage with devices like computers and smartphones for up to an hour daily.

The more time spent in front of screens is less time spent participating in activities beneficial to language development, such as interacting with others or learning to read books. A benchmark commonly used by pediatricians is that by 24 months old, a child should be able to speak between approximately 30 to 50 words. In children up to age three, whose young brains are still rapidly developing, this deluge of electronic media might be detrimental to their language development.

“It seems to be addictive for a lot of children,” says Lynda Papale, a certified speech language pathologist with Jacksonville Speech and Hearing Center. “We’ve seen children coming in here playing on their parent’s cell phone, really engaged in the device and having difficulty when parents are taking it away from them, and yet, they’re not talking, they’re not interacting, they’re not engaging.”

Studies show that too much screen time reduces a child’s attention span, eye contact, social interaction and vocabulary acquisition. Despite the wide availability of tech-based educational tools, children tend to learn best from interaction and verbal communication with humans rather than technology. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests no screen time at all for children under age two.

In addition, the AAP has also found no proof that so-called educational videos are beneficial for toddlers’ language development, stating that 12- to 18-month-olds are not able to learn and remember information as well from a video as from a live person. Also, tablet activities tend to have limited word choice, and children’s cartoons also use the same core vocabulary rather than complex words.

However, technology isn’t all bad for kids. What’s a childhood without cartoons and games, right? Many speech language pathologists incorporate, in moderation, the use of tablets and language-based apps into their therapies.

“It can be a benefit to use the tablet from the ages of two to eight, but beyond the age of eight, it kind of becomes more of a distraction,” says local speech language pathologist Erin Lamblez, who mostly works with children on the autism spectrum.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) suggests that in young children, concerned parents should look out for the following signs:

•Not smiling or interacting with others
•Making minimal sounds or gestures
•Very limited vocabulary
•Inability to string words together to form sentences
•Difficulty playing and interacting with other children

Keep in mind that even if one notices the above markers these issues are both treatable and preventable. Speech language pathologists agree that the best way to stimulate language is simply to communicate with a child as often as possible. Therapists also suggest plenty of self-talk—for example, naming items that can be observed during everyday activities like grocery shopping, washing dishes, taking a walk or using picture books.

Parents should also be mindful that using technology as a learning tool works best if they are actively participating in the activity with the child.

“I’m sure that there are a lot of positives that come from educational toys and engaging a child with educational programs,” says Papale. “But I think a lot of advice says to sit down with your child if you’re going to look at Sesame Street, talk about it with them and be able to use it as a tool that way.”