The impact of the mobile phone

April 5th 2024

It is Good to Talk!

The signs of things going wrong in society are usually first evident in small children.  The widespread dependence on Smartphones is showing its negative impact on our children. Its certainly evident in the amount of language delay we see and the increase in the numbers of children arriving tin their prams clutching their parents’ phones or learning to speak with an American YouTube accent. Two recent reports caught my eye and then depressed me!

A report from the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama) Pediatrics supports what we are seeing sadly. The research was conducted across 220 Australian families using advanced speech recognition technology to capture young children’s screen time and home language environment for an average of 16 hours per day.  The technology was described a bit like a Fitbit but instead of counting your steps it counted words spoken to and around the child at home. The device also picked up electronic noise, which the researchers analysed to calculate screen time. This included TVs and phones.

The researchers focused on three measures of parent-child talk: adult words, child vocalisations, and conversational turns.  They concluded that “technoference” (technology-based interference) screen time may be interfering with opportunities for talking at home and limiting interactions between parent and child.

The concern was also highlighted in a new book called The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt, who sets out the true cost of our growing dependence on addictive smartphones. He picks up on the impact on children’s brain development showing the reader examples of how smartphones are affecting children’s actual brain design, especially during the vulnerable developmental stage.

He suggests that phone companies have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale by designing what he calls a firehose of addictive content that has displaced physical play and personal socialising. He has picked up on parental anxiety about phones and the impact on their older children’s welfare, with social media with a sizeable link between heavy social media use and mental illness in girls.

Mother looking at phone while holding children at the table

However, the Australian report implies that parents of younger children seem oblivious to the impact of smartphones on their children’s development. The statistics are scary though! The research identified that the average toddler is missing out on hearing more than 1,000 words spoken by an adult each day due to screen time, setting back their language skills. It was most pronounced among three-year-old children. For every extra minute of screen time, the three-year-olds in the study were hearing seven fewer words, speaking five fewer words themselves and engaging in one less conversation. The researchers hope to continue their investigations by looking at younger children, which will be very important given how crucial growing up in a language-rich home environment is for children’s cognitive development.

These are just two pieces of research which warn us about the horrors of screentime and highlight our role in Early Years to remind parents that smartphones and screen time combined, especially in large doses, are not good for their children and the Home Learning Environment is much better if it is language rich and screen poor.  That requires us to also rethink our own addiction to phones. Time for a face-to-face conversation.