21 February 2020

A research project at Linköping University has shown that children whose parents often use digital media develop language more slowly than others.


For three years, Associate Professor Anett Sundqvist and her research group in the Child and Infant Lab at Linköping University have studied young children and their development in a digital world. 
“We started when the children were nine months old, and have followed them since then. We have examined how children and parents use technology, and how their use of technology affects the children’s language development, cognitive development and memory.”


Two-way interactions most important 

The public debate surrounding digital media has often focussed on screen time, but Anett Sundqvist and her colleagues suggest that this is not a useful concept. They use instead the term “technoference”, a merger of “technology” and “interference”. This term describes how digital media disturb the communication between children and parents. For the language development of children, it is highly important that the parent is attentive and active.
“By far the most important parameter for the child’s language development is the number of two-way interactions with the parent. It’s not a case of how many words the child hears. If it were so, it would be possible simply to have the TV on in the background at home”, says Anett Sundqvist. 
“For young children, it’s extremely important that someone says things like: ‘Look at your shoes!’ and then looks at the child’s shoes. If you’re not paying attention to the child, you miss signals, and cannot describe in words what the child is seeing and doing.”
Anett Sundqvist points out that it is not digital media in itself that is the problem, but how it is used. A book and a mobile phone are used differently. When you read a book for a young child, you also point at things, explain and discuss what you read.
“In theory, it would be possible to use a mobile phone in the same way, but this seldom happens in practice. Since the child can use the mobile phone alone, he or she does not receive the support and attention that are required to learn.”


Explain what you are doing 

It can be difficult as a parent to refrain from using a mobile phone when with children. Anett Sundqvist says that it’s better to explain what you are doing when you use a mobile phone. 
“It’s a good idea to make mobile phone use more transparent for children. Talk out loud and explain what you are doing, paying a bill, for example. The child in this way at least gets some idea of what you are doing. In addition, it often makes you more conscious yourself about how often you use your mobile.” 
People who criticise digital media in the public debate may be considered hostile to technology.
“When someone mentions the negative effects of digital media on children the concept of ‘technology panic’ is often mentioned, but research shows quite clearly that the use of digital media has these consequences.

Digital media is still somewhat new, but Anett Sundqvist believes that awareness of the issues involved is greater now. 

“I hope that we are moving towards parents being slightly more restrictive in its use. This may be counteracted by the new syllabus for preschools, which says that preschools are to use digital media. The age at which this can start is not specified, and many preschools have interpreted this to mean that digital media can be used when children start preschool.”


What do you think of this decision?
“I find it rather hasty, because it’s not digital media, but the content and how it is used that are important.” 
“And we know that children find it significantly more difficult to learn from a screen. There’s a lot of evidence that this is the case. It’s difficult for a young child that transfer what it sees on the screen to the real world. If the task of preschools is to promote children’s learning, it’s not sensible to spend a lot of time with something that makes it more difficult for children to learn.”
Anett Sundqvist and her research group are seeking funding to continue to follow the children.
“We want to continue and investigate what the consequences of using digital media are for these children when they start school.” 


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