Sunday 24 September 2017

Language skills of Irish children hampered by tech gadgets - experts

‘Screen time’ is apparently removing the very environment needed for children to develop their speech.
‘Screen time’ is apparently removing the very environment needed for children to develop their speech.

Greg Harkin

The basic speech and social skills of thousands of Irish children of all ages are being hampered by increasing use of gadgets, experts have warned.

Social and language skills among some children at one school has been so disrupted by overuse of tablets and computers, it has hired a speech therapist to help.

One expert says he is even receiving queries from the worried parents of teenagers who rely so much on social media for communication that they can barely utter a word in normal day-to-day conversation.

Psychologist Ronan Maher, programme director with Cluas which helps children and adults with speech and language difficulties, says ‘screen time’ is removing the very environment needed for children to develop their speech.

“It’s one of the first questions I would ask of a parent of a child experiencing speech difficulties,” he said, “how much time is their child spending on a screen of one sort or another.

“Of course it’s not always the issue. It used to be just the television which took away conversation time among families but now it’s gadgets as well.

“Some parents increasingly use gadgets as substitute baby-sitters and that’s not good for the development of speech and language.

“The family environment is still the perfect environment for developing speech among children but it has changed unfortunately and it is something which needs to be addressed.”

Dublin-based speech and language therapist Dr Caroline Winstanley warned gadgets were affecting development skills of children in all areas.

“I see a lot of children and I do ask parents to limit time on gadgets,” she said.

“I work closely with occupational therapists and what we are seeing more and more are children who spend so much time swiping on an iPad that they can’t even hold a pencil.”

She also warned against seeing tablets as a magic aid for the treatment of autism.

Read more: Thinking of buying an iPad for your child for Christmas? Think again.

“It’s almost the first thing people will say when they hear a child has autism -  you must go and get an iPad,” said Dr Winstanley.

“That is not the answer unless its use is restricted otherwise an autistic child will become locked in to the gadget and become more socially excluded.

“Gadget use can be beneficial but it cannot be unrestricted.”

Una McCool, who has been teaching three and four year olds for the past 21 years, said she has seen a decline in the speech and interaction skills of children.

“It is very sad to watch,” she said.

“I’ve seen children playing with wooden blocks and they put them on the floor in the shape of a tablet and then swipe them as if they were real tablets.

“When those children play at a sand tray now they don’t even speak to each other. Social skills have gone.”

Her school - the Model Primary in Derry City - has brought in a speech therapist to help.

“I know there was an argument a generation ago about children watching too much television, but the wide availability of gadgets now is much more intrusive into normal life,” said Ms McCool.

“You will see children on gadgets now in supermarkets while their parents shop. the children should be helping with the shop, learning about food and colours, but that’s rare now.

“Computers are a brilliant educational tool but it seems they have taken over completely a generation of children who don’t speak to each other, don’t speak to their family members and who never go outside on a bicycle or to kick a football. It’s scary.”

Health authorities in Taiwan have become so frightened of the overuse of gadgets that the Government there this week banned their use by all children under the age of two.

The new criminal law comes with a €1,300 fine for parents who break the ban.

Guidelines also warned that all children under the age of 18 should have periods of time on gadgets limited to 30 minutes.

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