Issues around Mobile Technology and Children

chatta‘s Chris Williams discusses issues related to technology in society and child development.

Interview by Holly Ansell:

Many schools are reporting a lack of social skills, delayed speech and a lack of resilience on entry to the reception class.

I see this all the time across nurseries and schools. It’s a challenge that is increasing year on year. We’ve got to ask the question of why this is happening, something is missing on the way into school or nursery that is causing this.

Do you think the use of smartphones is a contributing factor?

If you were to stop at any point, going about your day to day life and really notice how much time we (and the people around us) spend using them, you have to wonder, what is this at the expense of? What did we do before? It comes down to talking. We see so many people nowadays in this virtual world, not actually interacting with each other face-to-face. Could it be smartphones?

We live in a very different world to that of the world we grew up in. Do you think spending time on our phones or mobile devices is increasingly replacing social interaction as a way of spending time?

I do. I see it with myself, my family, friends and the people I work with. Our world moves at a different pace and sometimes place. A life in the cloud is now very much a reality, we are changing, everything is changing.

So then, is resistance futile? Will it change? Or do we just have to develop our ways of using technology so that we can healthily develop children’s language and interaction skills?

The developments and growth of technology are exciting but we should be turning those developments to our advantage, using it in productive and proactive ways. This could well be the best way to find a healthy balance.

There is no substitute for story reading. There is no substitute for playing a board that requires discussion. Can technology really enhance these activities?

Correct, there isn’t a substitution for those things, for activities that involve play, talk, turn-taking, social skills and interaction. For me, I like to use technology to take photographs of those experiences and instances as I can then look back on those snapshots of time and recall the memories. Previously you’d go on holiday, take some photos and when you came home you’d look forward to receiving the pictures back from the developers but now technology can give you that in an instant. It really allows for instant reflection.

Constantly looking at and checking our mobile phones has become part of natural, expected behaviour. It’s interesting to see how this is now feeding into our roles as parents.

Yes, it is and they’re a dominant force to be reckoned with. Children however, still have the same development needs, nothing has changed there. We do say that technology is changing the job market and the futures that our children will have but we still need to be aware that their emotional, social, physical and communication development is necessary. As parents, mobile phones are changing our behaviour rapidly.

Many parents won’t be able to spend as much time talking to their children as they’d like, due to difficult home circumstances or work commitments for example. So for the many parents that are present but are being distracted by their phones, this study has shown that this is really impacting the children.

I think when we see a parent and child together, with the parent immersed in a device that doesn’t connect with the child; we need to take a step back, alarm bells should ring. Not that I blame parents, life has definitely changed but we need to prompt ourselves that speaking to our kids and putting the phone away is crucial.

It’s a modern day peril, so what do we do to keep our smartphone habits in check?

It is! I think limiting screen time or having dedicated time when we’re not involved with our mobile devices is imperative because things can run away with us, these things can become a habit which can potentially stop us fulfilling the needs of our own families.

So all that is needed is being more mindful about when we’re picking up our phone and making sure we’re chatting to our children as much as possible?

Entirely. Imagine picking up the phone and the phone case has a reminder on it, a prompt! It’s ironic really, as the phone was invented as a communication tool for us to talk to one another. Then it became the smartphone and that communication stopped because now we don’t need to talk to one another.

These don’t need to necessarily be educational conversations then? Chatting more, just generally will improve their vocabulary enough to mean they’re in a better position for starting school?

Yes, it’s that simple. Talking to children is how they will learn the language. Any experience a child is having, right now, the adult can be there providing that language as the model for the child to learn from. Over time, this happening repeatedly, something as simple as narrating a situation; this gives children the language they will need to thrive.

Tired working parents and families that are struggling with parenting may well give children devices instead of spending the time talking or playing with them but really this is symptomatic of society, not placing children first on so many different levels.

We must be on guard with this. There are many things that come through technology which at first might report to be educational however when we step back and see; what they’re doing is taking children away from real life experiences. That cannot be overlooked. I’m repeating myself but it’s that important! They need to do, they need to play, they need to interact.

To the extent that smartphones stand in the way of that process then, they are the problem?

Yes. They can be part of the problem, they can be the problem. The challenge facing us today is, how can we engineer it so that they become the solution.

Well then, what’s stopping parents from having a conversation using the smartphone? About how school when, what they’ve learned? Or using them to write about reactions to new experiences, things like that?

There are lots of opportunities for the smartphones to be the carrier of information. Images for example, reflecting to experiences. I work with a lot of schools that send their images home to the parents, so they’ve got something to talk about immediately. ‘What did you do today? Oh let’s have a look.’ ‘Well you were outside, building a den, brilliant!’

So then it’s perfectly possible to use smartphones to promote social relationships? Even though at the minute, the tendency is there to replace social interaction?

I believe it is. In the work we do with chatta; we share children’s experiences (by photograph) with parents, on a regular basis – and the parent’s love it! They say ‘We’ve now just got such an insight into what’s happening in nursery and school.’ Now with chatta, we’ve started as well to share songs and conversations so that the language associated with the experience is also shared with the parent. Again, we’re feeding back that this is so exciting, they get to hear the words and sentences that the practitioners are using and what the children are saying. What we’re essentially doing with Chatta, is bringing language into so many more experiences.

That combines everything! You’re bringing language and learning into the home and the use of technology in a productive way.

Yes. I once saw at a nursery, a little boy named Charlie* was being collected by his mum and he was excited, he had so much to share yet his mum didn’t look up from her phone. Clearly something was going on, that necessitated that in this situation but they were walking and he was trying to tell her how great his morning had been, that he’d been building with crates in the courtyard and she wasn’t even there, wasn’t listening.

Then we started sending experiences to her, through chatta, and it changed immediately. I went back to the nursery and the practitioners were sending experiences to her throughout the morning, so by the time she collected Charlie, she already knew what he’d been doing and then it was her that was prompting the conversation. The technology was still involved, but it made us reflect, this is it… This is how we respect and embrace the technology whilst focussing on what matters most, which is our children’s language and learning. It’s the solution.