Digital Media Project

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No, we are not causing speech delay!

by Susan Rvachew, Ph.D., S-LP(C), Professor and Kathrin Rees, Doctoral Candidate, Child Phonology Lab, McGill University

I have seen and heard so many articles, television reports and radio broadcasts suggesting that “screen time” is causing speech delay, mental health problems and mass murder (seriously) in the past few months  that I couldn’t possibly link to them all. I really don’t want to do that anyway because I cannot promote that much nonsense or cause that much distress to any parent (see also my last blogpost, Are Baby Videos Bad for Babies?). What I will say is that there is no evidence that speech and language problems are rising in the population despite the suggestions in these fear-mongering reports that there has been a sharp rise in “speech problems” over the past few decades. For example, population-based studies spanning the 1940s (Irwin, United States), 1980’s (Beitchman and colleagues, Canada) and 2000’s (McLeod & Harrison, Australia) all found that about 11% of children at approximately school entry had speech/language problems. So, the idea that speech and language problems are increasing over time is just plain wrong and therefore we do not need to be concerned that parents are causing a rise in these problems by letting their children use digital tablets so much that they forget to talk to them!

Nonetheless, every new generation of parents must contend with new challenges when it comes to spending enough time with their children and providing appropriately enriching language interactions. When I was growing up, placing appropriate limits on tv time and content was a preoccupation for my parents just as parents today are struggling with the task of balancing the potential benefits of new technologies against any potential harms of over-use. Our research project is designed to observe parents and children while they negotiate this balance. We know that language is best learned from rich verbal interactions between adult and child while they are engaged in an activity that grabs the attention of both parent and child. When we watch parents read standard paper books to their 4-year-olds we know that we are observing an interaction that has evolved over many years from the first encounters in infancy when mum or dad might have spent most of the interaction trying to prevent baby from eating the book! At the age of 4 however the child is well adapted to the routine and perfectly reads the parent’s signals – therefore the child knows when to listen quietly, turn the page, answer a question, make a comment, lift the flap and so on. The interactions are beautifully coordinated and a pleasure to watch.

When we watch shared reading interactions with an iPad we observe a broader range of interactions. When the adult and child have had no prior experience with this technology and the child has good language skills, the parent and child usually negotiate the exchange quite quickly after an initial period of discoordination – for example, the child may be activating animations or turning the page out of sync with the parent’s reading. The child will quickly learn to ask when to activate the page turn or the parent will propose a verbal signal to let the child know when it is appropriate to “play” with the device. Sometimes, the child and parent do not come to an agreement about how to share the device however and it feels like we are watching a pitched battle for control of the ebook – this happens most often when the child has had a lot of experience with solitary iPad play and the parent is not used to using reading ebooks. Problems coordinating the reading exchange  may also happen when the child has delayed language skills – in this case the parent may find it harder to communicate a system for establishing a read-play rhythm. Most of the parent-child partners that we observe work this out however and have a lot of fun reading ebooks together – on average more time is spent on each page with digital books compared to paper books and this technology creates a lot of space for enjoyable conversation between parent and child.

We feel strongly that paper and electronic books both offer opportunities for language learning as long as the parent gets involved. For this reason we are delighted that we were able to collaborate with Tribal Nova to develop the iReadwith series of digital books that are specially designed to involve the parent in reading. Check them out here at the iReadwith website.

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