Mobile devices have changed the American family in ways not seen since the dawn of television. We've gotten used to the idea of a family being "together alone," each immersed in a different technological device. In the summer, especially, more free time for kids often translates into more time spent on devices and less time interacting, communicating, and bonding as a family. Smart-phone games, selfies, snapchats – and do we really need social media updates at the pool, the dinner table, and the beach? Many of us see these as simply bad habits shared by kids and adults alike.
But as an audiologist, I can't help seeing that a family's inability to unplug is neither a social tic nor a harmless side effect of summer's long days. Rather, it's a public health hazard. Abandoning face-to-face conversation poses an enormous risk to children's speech and language development, and listening to devices too frequently at high volumes can harm hearing for the long term.
Parents also are concerned by the health implications of too much tech time. More than half surveyed by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association this spring said tech devices are making it harder for their children to pay attention when someone is talking, engage in meaningful conversations or focus on schoolwork.
What can families do to reverse the tide? For parents with babies or toddlers — too many of whom have access to tablets and smartphones — my advice is to cut back on or completely eliminate technology. And make sure a parent is always present and interacting with little ones if they do use devices sparingly. Nothing replaces human interaction as children develop early speech and communication skills.
If you're a parent with older kids who are out of school for the summer, now is a good time to replace old habits with healthier ones. A recent survey we conducted found that 77 percent of parents use tech devices as a solution for bored kids. We also found that contrary to the reputation for being obstinate, 84 percent of teens are willing change their behaviors.
Here are some ideas for a lower-tech, more face-to-face summer:
In the car: Especially on long rides, play car games, talk or sing along to music together so kids don't end up playing on their devices the whole way.
At summer events: Consider going tech-free at barbecues, pool parties, or baseball games. Bring a bag to collect all the phones.
On vacation: Leave devices behind at specific times during your vacation. Keep the phones in the glove compartment for a day at the beach or a car camping trip.
At home: Find fun alternatives to tech time: Start a summer book or cooking club for neighborhood kids, have kids keep a summer journal, go on family "field trips" (take turns choosing where), or organize tech-free play dates.
While listening to music: When children are using headphones or ear buds, ask them to keep the volume turned to half and take listening breaks.
Kids who develop healthier tech habits today are more likely to carry those into adulthood. This will serve them — and perhaps their children — well no matter what the tech landscape looks like in the years ahead.