Just a few short years ago, it was teenagers who were consumed by their cell phones to the frustration of their parents. Now, many toddlers are already logging serious tech screen time. Even the youngest children are often able to expertly navigate tech devices.

Many parents are concerned about the impact this technology will have on their children. Yet, there is no getting around the fact that these devices have become a big part of modern life. Parents rely on them in many ways and their kids have followed suit.

It isn’t fully known how tech time affects a child’s overall development, including communication skills, social interactions, and academic success. That being said, there are many things that we do know about how children develop. One of the things we know is the undeniable role of verbal communication as the primary source of learning for young children. The most rapid period of brain development occurs before age 3, and talking, singing, and reading to children are the necessary fuel for this growth.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time of any kind for children younger than age 2, and a maximum of two hours daily for older children. A critical guideline for every household is that tech time must not replace time for traditional communication.

Here are some tips to help parents and caregivers keep traditional communication at the forefront of family life:

1. Capitalize on everyday situations.

The greatest learning opportunities for young children can be found in seemingly mundane tasks: driving in the car, going to the grocery store, doing household chores such as the laundry, or sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. Narrate what you see or what you are doing at these times, use descriptive language, and ask questions of your child to help build strong speech, language, and communication skills.

2. Carve out tech-free times.

Traditionally, dinner and bedtimes are ideal opportunities for communication. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for tech devices to start to slowly infringe upon those times. Make a concerted effort to prevent that. Instead, use dinner time to talk about the food your family is eating and the day’s events. Don’t abandon the all-important tradition of reading a bedtime story to your children, or making up stories together. These provide excellent opportunities to hone communication skills.

3. Make tech use a group activity.

While devices are often dubbed “personal,” they don’t have to be. Many children play games, color, or do puzzles on these devices. Join them! Keep verbal communication a part of this by asking questions and talking about what they are doing.

4. Use technology safely.

Many kids frequently use devices with accompanying headphones or earbuds. If they adopt a habit of listening for long periods at high volumes, they could acquire noise-induced hearing loss. In fact, hearing loss has increased significantly in children since the mid-1990s, and the World Health Organization recently put out a warning about this health threat to young people. Even mild hearing loss can seriously impact speech and language development, as well as academic and social success. Teach children to practice safe listening by keeping the volume at half level and taking listening breaks. Make sure to model this behavior yourself!

No matter how your family approaches technology, remember to never underestimate the power of simply talking. The link between talking to young children and their later academic achievement has been scientifically established, and technology use is not a replacement for talk.

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