Is technology overtaking human interaction?

There is growing research evidence rapid expansion of technology is negatively affecting face-to-face communication. Emily Drago of Elon University, North Carolina, in her report The Effect of Technology on Face to Face Communication concludes:

“People are becoming more reliant on communicating with friends and family through technology and are neglecting to engage personally, uninhibited by phones and devices, even when actually in the presence of others. A majority of individuals felt the quality of their conversations degraded in the presence of technology, and many individuals were bothered when friends or family used technology while spending time together. Additionally, nearly half of survey respondents (46%) communicate more frequently with friends and family via technology than in person, indicating strongly that face-to-face interactions have decreased both in quality and in quantity. Only time will tell what the long-term impacts of this radical shift in communication methods will yield.”

Only time will tell. I strongly suspect time is already telling.

This year Save the Children reported that 130,000 children a year (just in England alone) are falling behind in language development before they reach school. And many are struggling to catch up or “grow out of it” as outlined in the findings of University College London and Royal Holloway, University of London.

This leads to so many questions, so many alarm bells.

Is the cause the widely shared argument that children are occupied on tablets and computers too often, missing valuable development milestones?

Or, is the root cause  linked directly to how children learn to speak and understand language?  The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 (2003) recognises that the quantity and quality of spoken language interactions children experience impacts directly on language competence in children. The  study concludes that  differences in parent-child interactions produced significant discrepancies in not only children’s knowledge, but also their language skills. Children from high-income families were exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on the lowest incomes (by the age of 3.) Follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life.

A lot has happened since 2003.Ubiquitous use of smartphones and tablets are taking communication to a new and rapidly evolving place.  All around us, at home, at work- everywhere, people (adults) aren’t talking.

Many  people see no problem with this and embrace it as evolution and actually an improvement in communication and connecting people without making the link to the catastrophic consequences of removing and reducing spoken language in everyday life.

The justification here is to counter the argument that technology is leading to social isolation. It is failing to recognise, however, the decline in the constant and everyday use of spoken language. The only way children will develop the language proficiency to interact, read, write and learn is through an activity and language rich environment in the early years. Technology can present a significant barrier to that.

Countries such as Taiwan have recognised and responded to the escalating situation in aheavy-handed fashion backed up by harsh legislation restricting access  tablets and screens for children.

But going back to the “30 million word gap” it is adults (parents) who teach their children to speak through repeatedly modelling language linked to everyday life, learning and experiences. Parents have to talk and talk well.

I really like the phrase “Stop, Drop and Talk” from Marsha Pinto’s blog. A nice snappy reminder to parents who find themselves being drawn away into the virtual world of their smartphone, in the presence of their young children. Marsha reports “52% of parents are concerned about technology negatively impacting the quality of their conversations with their children and the quantity of conversations they engage in.” Similarly the widely shared “There is no app to replace your lap” prompts reading and interaction and is a gentle reminder that technology is something that must be at the forefront of parents’ minds.

I don’t think we need government health warnings of smart phones and tablets. I do think this topic should be more widely discussed at a time when everything is moving so quickly, yet our children’s needs and requirements for good and healthy development haven’t changed at all. People need to know how important talking is.

We need to talk more.