We’re not talking to our kids are we causing speech delay?

A parent walks into a cafe engaged in conversation on the phone, with a child tagging along. The parent orders a coffee and a drink for the child. The parent sits down and continues talking on the phone. A tablet computer is pulled out of the parent’s bag and passed to the child. The parent continues talking on the phone.

A parent enters a doctor’s waiting room with child in arms, sits down; the child is placed on a nearby chair. The child is handed a mobile phone to play with, while waiting.

Is technology the villain?

As a parent and educator I encourage teachers to integrate technology in learning at schools. I have done a number of large studies in the area, and studies show educational programs on computers and other devices have great potential to improve early learning.

But primary school principals and early years’ teachers have expressed concern to me about the increased numbers of kindergarten students with obvious speech delays – so much so that in many schools speech therapists have been called in.

One inner-city Sydney school principal said:

From 62 kindergarten children this year, 11 require speech therapy. That is almost 18% of the cohort. While I am an advocate for using technology in education, I am very concerned about basic human skills like speech not being as developed as well as they could be when young children start school.

Are parents relying on technological devices to entertain their children – known as “pass ‘n’ play” – rather than direct conversation, story reading, playing games and make-believe, and other forms of quality interaction?

There aren’t enough studies on the effects of parents’ use of technology on children’s speech development to make definitive claims, but the fact that it has been raised by teachers and principals suggests we need to look into the issue more closely.

Pass ‘n’ play

This is just as it sounds: the parent passes the child a technological device to play with while in the café or in the doctor’s waiting room. While technology certainly has its place in childhood development, devices should be used as active tools providing quality interactions, not as pacifiers.

Parents should use the device with an educational app or game to question and talk about what is happening on screen. If technological devices are just “inbuilt babysitters” or “moment fillers” they are not fulfilling the educational capacity for which they could be used.

Similar fears of declining familial interactions were raised with the promulgation of television in the 1950s. The main difference here, however, is that these smart phones and tablet computers are carried everywhere we go.

What does the research say?

A UK study suggested “technology gadgets are blamed for a 70% leap in speech problems in the past six years”. In a follow-up article, a US paediatric speech pathologist asked whether technology is damaging children’s speech and language skills; it concluded too much time on devices is definitely playing a role.

When parents are endlessly busy on computers, phones, tablets and watching TV, that is time they are not spending interacting with their child. Brain scientist Dr Jordy Kaufman argued that in 2013 there were no scientific studies on the consequences of the use of technological devices by very young children. Research at the Swinburne BabyLab is being undertaken to fill this gap. Kerry Staples, an early childhood specialist at the University of Western Sydney, adds:

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