Are iPads causing speech problems for young children? Yes, if you believe a recent Sydney newspaper headline.
The article suggested that iPads were responsible for developmental speech impairments in Kindergarten children. The article claimed that increasing numbers of children were starting school with speech delays and tablets and technology were blamed for the decline in these skills.
But I have several problems with this article (besides the fear-inducing headline that once again demonises technology and makes parents feel unnecessarily guilty about their children using iPads).
I think it’s too simple to suggest that iPads are solely responsible for speech problems in children. (Why am I not surprised that the media has sensationalised the issue?)
1. Where’s the ‘research’?
This article was not based on systematic research. It was based on the observations of teachers in one Sydney school (just one school with 62 Kindergarten children) and anecdotal evidence from various teachers and speech pathologists.
Now, I’m not suggesting that these aren’t accurate observations. There may in fact be a decline in children’s speech skills upon school entry. But my concern is that the article insinuated that there was an ‘epidemic’ of children starting school with speech problems. But we don’t (yet) have the research evidence to support this claim. [I’m still trying to locate the UK study that suggested that electronic gadgets may be to blame for a 70% increase in speech problems. So I can’t yet confirm the credibility of this ‘study’.]
2. How do we know iPads are to blame?
There may well be a decline in children’s speech skills upon school entry. I don’t deny that for a second. In fact, I have a hunch that there probably is a decline. But even if there is a decline, how do we know iPads are to blame? How can we solely attribute this problem to technology and specially to iPads?
Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s bad.
I’m yet to come across any research that proves that iPads cause language delays.
In fact, this article is in contrast to a recent Australian study which showed that 3-5 year olds with greater access to tablet technologies had higher early literacy skills than their counterparts that had less access to tablet technologies. [Yes, it was a small-scale study so we can’t generalise too much about the findings. But it was published in an academically-reviewed journal, so it is research-based and not hype-based, headline grabbing ‘data’.]
Now I’m the first to admit that there’s a lag in the research. The technology is moving so fast that the researchers (myself included) cannot keep up. But this doesn’t mean that we should make assumptions about what may be causing speech delays. At this stage of the game, we just don’t know. Which leads to ask…
3. Are there other factors that may be responsible for declining speech skills?
I have a hunch that there are broader societal factors that may be responsible for the possible decline in children’s speech skills.
For example, we know that economic pressures have resulted in more parents working increased numbers of hours and subsequently having less time with children. This decrease in parent interaction may be why children’s language skills are changing. Parents may be spending less time interacting with their children. They are time-poor.
And we know that serve-and-return interaction is critical for young children’s language development. Without quality interactions with parents (and/or carers) children will not develop essential early literacy skills. We know that those children who use and hear lots of language have greater language skills, than their counterparts who hear and use less language.
Children are also now spending more time outside of the family home. Many children are spending more hours in formal and informal care, which may have changed their language exposure and development patterns. It may also have changed their technology exposure. [And no, I’m not saying that childcare causes poor language development. That’s not the case. I’m simply suggesting that there are broader societal changes which may be responsible for the possible deterioration in children’s language skills.]
So maybe, just maybe, it’s a combination of several factors. Maybe it’s parents having less available time to interact with their children that’s responsible for the possible decline in language skills. Perhaps it’s time-poor parents who are using technology as the digital baby-sitter. [Now, I know that not all parents do this. There is techno-shaming here.]
Again, we just don’t know. And until we do know, I think we should refrain from blaming technology.
4. Are we just better at diagnosing speech delays?
The increased awareness of the importance of early intervention, may mean that we are better at diagnosing and treating speech problems in young children. Perhaps teachers and health workers are becoming more adept at identifying speech problems in young children. So perhaps, just perhaps, we aren’t seeing a decline in Kindergarten children’s speech skills, but a greater awareness of basic developmental capabilities.
So I’m not dismissing that perhaps we are witnessing a decline in young children’s speech skills. When I speak to teachers throughout Australia, I’m hearing similar concerns. But I don’t think we can be too premature and blame iPads.
I’d love to hear in the comments below, have you noticed changes in young children’s language skills?