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Conversation and Child Development in the Digital Age

By: Lower School Director Karen Boyle

February 8, 2016

These days, average American adults check their phones every six and a half minutes. We start early. There are now baby bouncers (and potty seats) that are manufactured with a slot to hold a digital device. A quarter of American teenagers are connected to a device within five minutes of waking up. Most teenagers send one hundred texts a day. Eighty percent sleep with their phones. Forty-four do not ‘unplug’ ever, not even in religious services or when playing a sport or exercising. (Source: Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age by Sherry Turkle)

During my 20+ years in education, I have noticed a significant change in the preparation children have as they begin their education. Our youngest students arrive at school with less language than they did in the past, and especially less pragmatic (or social) language. Over the last few years, I have grown increasingly concerned about this change.

As a student in the field of education, I learned about extensive research demonstrating that children living in poverty enter school with many disadvantages, but one of the greatest challenges they face is a lack of exposure to language. In today’s world, it seems that children in higher socio-economic groups may face the same challenge.

Surrounded by electronic devices, children often spend more time interacting with a virtual world than the real one. Face-to-face conversations and interactive games like Peek-a-boo seem to be going by the wayside in favor of electronic apps and videos. For us as parents, electronic gadgets make life much easier, particularly in situations that require the need to sit or wait quietly. Simply look around a restaurant and notice the number of families who are enjoying a family meal while at least one member of the family focuses on a device rather than interacting with their family members.

Parents with tweens and teens often complain about how much their children use and are distracted by their devices, but the problem is a two-way street (and it can often be difficult to discern which one leads to the other). In her research, Sherry Turkle explains, “parents complain that children won’t talk to them because they are so busy with their phones at mealtime; children have the same complaints about their parents.”

Just like our children, we can easily become absorbed with our devices. How many times has your child grown upset or perhaps even begun misbehaving because you are wrapped up in checking email, responding to texts, or talking on the phone? Mine has! I enjoy and rely on my electronic devices as much as the next person. Especially as an introvert, I have to fight the urge to hide in a screen rather than jumping into the conversation and interacting with others.

As an educator of young children and a parent, however, I know that conversation is crucial to a child’s development. Without conversation, they cannot develop the language and social-emotional skills they need to communicate and learn effectively. Therefore, I am determined to learn more about the influence the digital age is having on language development, particularly in young children, and to figure out what we can do about it.

No one knows the long-term implications of growing up in a digital age. Digital devices, particularly the fit-in-your-pocket, go-everywhere variety, have not been around long enough to conduct the necessary research. Quite honestly, I am not sure we will ever really understand the long-term implications. The digital landscape changes too rapidly. In my lifetime alone, technology has evolved from enormous home computers to devices that fit in a pocket (or even on your wrist) and accomplish much more than those early mammoth beasts ever could.

We may never have hard data to outline the positive and negative consequences of the digital age. However, we do have plenty of anecdotal information demonstrating that the ability to engage in conversation and the development of healthy social-emotional skills are at risk when we fail to balance digital interactions with face-to-face human interactions. So, the best advice I can offer is to continually reflect on how often you and your child are absorbed in the digital world as opposed to engaging in face-to-face human interactions. If you have a very young child, make time for interactive games like Peek-a-boo and “How big is ___?” on a daily basis. Regardless of your child’s age, designate family “device-free times” and enjoy a mealtime conversation, play a board game, or read a book together. Most of all remember that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is conversation.

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