Are handheld devices harming our children’s communication skills?

By Fiona McElhone, Director of Speech and Language Services

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As a paediatric speech and language therapist, I have spent the last fifteen years working with children who have difficulties communicating effectively with others. They may have trouble understanding what is being said to them, being able to express their needs, feelings and thoughts, reading and writing, speaking clearly and fluently, or interacting appropriately with others. 

In recent years, my fellow therapists and I have noticed that more and more children seem to be entering school without the language and social skills expected for their age. These skills are much needed for them to succeed at school, both socially and academically.

This trend is cause for concern and discussion. There is a growing consensus that overuse of handheld devices such as tablets and phones is contributing to the poorer development of children’s communication skills. We need only to look around when we sit in a restaurant, in a waiting room, or on public transport to see children being absorbed in a device, rather than being engaged in conversation.

Our ability to communicate with each other is a critical component of what makes us human. We are born with an innate ability to learn language, but we still need to learn it. The learning starts from the moment a child is born. Parents look into their baby’s eyes, they “coo”, talk and wait for a response. As children grow, they gradually learn the sounds, words, grammar and syntax of their language(s). 

It’s not just spoken language that is learned. Children also learn non-verbal communication skills from the people around them. This includes different facial expressions, vocal tones, and body language that must be adjusted for different audiences in different situations.

All this essential learning occurs during everyday interactions such as playtime, mealtimes, at school and throughout the child’s daily routines and experiences. Every conversation helps to consolidate and grow the child’s rapidly developing and vastly complex language system.

We are all aware of the incredible impact hand-held devices have had on our society — and our children. They are highly engaging and designed to hold attention. It is an effect that parents everywhere have noticed and indulged to different extents, myself included. These devices can provide children with opportunities to learn skills and develop knowledge. However, they simply cannot replace the rich, varied and layered conversations you can only find in human interaction.

To date, little research has been dedicated specifically to the relationship between handheld devices and early communication skills. However, a link has long been established between frequent television viewing and delayed language skills. There are also studies that show children learn language — even the individual sounds of a language — more effectively through real, physical interactions with other people than through a screen. It is no great leap to believe that the overuse of handheld devices carries these and other potential pitfalls.

Every minute that a child spends on a device is a minute they could have spent talking or listening to someone, playing, reading, creating, or doing any number of things that are beneficial to the development of their cognitive, emotional and communication skills. Investing in a child’s development starts by making time to talk and interact with them. This means putting away children’s handheld devices, and putting down our own devices as well.

Nurturing our children's communication skills is important because every conversation counts towards better outcomes later in life. Having good communication skills makes a child more likely to succeed at school, more able to establish and maintain friendships, more likely to get a good job, less likely to get into trouble with the law, and less likely to have mental health issues.

This article originally appeared in the SCMP Education Post.