Technology: Friend or Foe to Language Development?

It comes as no surprise to anyone that too much screen time is not conducive to language development in young children. Through the media, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that television and other screen-based entertainment should be avoided entirely for infants and children under age two. A study done Chonchaiya and Pruksananonda  found that children who began watching TV before 12 months and who watched more than 2 hours of TV per day, were six times more likely to have language delays.

As a mother of two teenage boys who were born in the pre-tablet era, there was no need to worry about limiting technology time when they were little; all we had to contend with was the (gasp!) television and VCR player. When we went out for dinner with the boys, we had to actually bring (another gasp!) toys. For example, crayons and some paper, a couple of blocks, and small figurines, such as Toobs, were a lifesaver. Just a few of these portable manipulatives could be thrown into a bag and used in a multitude of ways such as hide and seek under the bowls and glasses, or making a little house with the blocks; this could provide hours (ok- several minutes) of entertainment. However, times have changed since I had my children, and they are going to keep changing whether or not we like it, want it, or are ready for it.

So what does that mean for us as parents and how about the implications for educators and those that work with young children?

As a Speech-Language Pathologist for 20 years, I have been forced to evolve the way that I use technology in my practice. We know from numerous studies and through every day practice,the first several years of life are are part of a critical period in a child’s language development. Once that window closes, it is much more difficult for them to learn and develop language skills to set them up for their schooling years. Every minute that a child spends in front of a screen is one fewer minute they could spend learning from a parent or caregiver.

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Yet, while it is strongly advised that technology be limited for young children, it doesn’t mean that it needs to be eliminated in the household. In fact, it is through research and technology that we have discovered new ways to measure if a child is hearing enough language in the home and provided enough opportunities for conversational turns to take place. I use a recording device, known as LENA (Language Environment Analysis), which is revolutionizing how researchers in speech-language pathology view data collection. The program provides highly specific information about caregiver/child language use by tucking a voice recorder into the child’s clothing while recording all the sounds in the environment. At the end of each day, special software helps me evaluate both the amount of exposure the child has had to verbal stimulation as well as the child’s own utterances. The device generates percentile rankings that help assess a child’s language exposure and can reassure that a child is being adequately stimulated. It can also detect early-warning signals that more stimulation is needed. As one of a very few therapists using LENA in private practice, I have found that the implementation of this technology is not only cutting edge, but a vital component to facilitating language development in young children. It empowers parents by providing them with the knowledge of how much language their children are hearing and allows me to be able to provide guidance and resources for them to maximize their child’s development. Without this technology, it is virtually impossible to know if we are providing children enough opportunities to both hear speech and react to it; if we don’t find out in the formidable years, we could alter a child’s course for learning later on.

Technology, is going to be around no matter what, so we need to embrace it. It serves a purpose by helping us solve problems. The tools that are being developed today will alter the course of our children’s development tomorrow. If you would like to read more about tech-heavy lifestyles and the effects, here are some great resources :