How Digital Technology Could Decrease the Word Gap, Not Widen It.
Jenny Radesky MD
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine
Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrician, Boston Medical Center

-absolutely_free_photos-original_photos-mom-and-son-5456x3632_56579When my 2-year old son is playing with my tablet, I could easily cease to exist for all he knows. His attention is so highly focused on tapping, making noises, popping balloons, and whatever inner satisfaction those activities provide him, that he never once looks up to check in with me. Perhaps that’s a good thing (he’s engaged with what he’s doing, I think!), but I’m sure I’ve done the same to him. At home, checking email on my phone, I get the results of a grant application. Emotions and thoughts flood me, and his bids for attention are now interruptions as I try to balance being a responsive mother with my reaction to whatever news my mobile device has delivered to me. It’s exhausting.

What is so different about emerging technologies? Didn’t magazines, telephones, and television have the same effect on families? Several studies have shown that when the television is on, adults and children have fewer verbal exchanges. My research has attempted to expand this knowledge about technology use and parent-child interactions to the now ubiquitous forms of mobile media: smartphones and tablets. Although our research is still preliminary, it suggests that parents who use mobile devices during eating encounters have fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions with their young children, and might react with more frustration when children bid for their attention.

There has arisen a moral panic that we are displacing incredibly crucial parent-child interactions with our portable, instantly accessible and (to be honest) highly satisfying technology use. And there are some good reasons behind this concern. As the number of hours we use screen technology per day goes up, there is the potential that number of words, conversational turns, questions, and positive statements that children hear from their parents goes down. As parents spend more time during family routines on their own devices, they are modeling technology use behaviors that could potentially influence their children’s media use habits and displace opportunities for emotional connection. Studies have shown that the more we use mobile technology, the more habit-driven and automatic it becomes, so we become less aware of our subconscious behavioral patterns, despite the fact that interruptions from cell phones impair our cognitive processing and change our emotional arousal.

But technology is a tool, not an end in itself. If our goal is to create unhurried time with children, so we can read, talk, sing, and play with them in ways that foster their growing brains, then we can use technology to do that too.

First, if we feel that educational apps/games are absorbing our children’s attention and nudging us out of the teaching role, we can inform the creation of apps and interfaces that both engage the child yet prompt more conversation and interaction with the world around them. It’s important for anything learned on a 2-dimensional screen to be translated into meaningful experiences in our 3-dimenstional world, and developers can embed these types of prompts into their products. Tech products don’t all need to be habit-forming (; in fact, the bells and whistles that hook kids’ attention to an app actually distract children from the educational content.

Second, there has been much controversy over whether the American Academy of Pediatrics 2 hour screen time limit is realistic in our media-saturated culture. Research shows it goes largely unheeded by American families. Perhaps a practical alternative would be to recommend unplugging during family routines: these are the times when the highest concentration of beneficial interactions occur, and parents can easily program the family’s devices to shut down during those hours (e.g.,

In order-absolutely_free_photos-original_photos-macbook-air-is-on-the-table-3626x2408_30667 for technology to be harnessed to reduce disparities in early learning, there need to be more free apps that provide quality, curriculum-based content and creative space, and then prompt the child to share it with others around them. Digital media can also model teaching or play strategies (e.g., dialogic reading, snow day ideas) to parents, or provide intermittent reminders of how to stimulate their child’s language and learning (link to

These little computers are amazing tools. We can use them for what we and our kids need, and then let them take a break while we do the rest.