Tech Talk

It is puzzling that as greater emphasis is placed on the importance of human interaction for babies and young children, technology moves in the opposite direction.  The recent focus on the importance of early childhood education has put the spotlight on various programs designed to advance the goal of bringing children of poverty up to the level of children of the wealthy.  Technology is playing a role in various ways.

Research has pointed to interaction with parents and caregivers from birth as playing a significant role in brain development.  This has evolved into a focus on words and the fact that children of the wealthy know more words than do those of the poor.  As during  other times in our history, attempts to solve social problems – in this case poverty – point to something parents are doing wrong that needs to be corrected.  In this case, one solution advanced is training parents to talk to their children.   

Attention has been called to a program in Providence R.I. and one in Houston, Texas, which focus on training parents to talk to their babies and young children.  The programs entail the use of small tape recorders that record all words spoken to and by them in vests worn by the children.  The recordings are then analyzed and the results used to demonstrate to the parents and caregivers the importance of talking to their children as well as ways of doing so.

Apparently the programs have yielded results in increasing the number of words heard by children in the poorest families.  Some parents also seem to take pride when the numbers increase, seeing this as a positive reflection of their efforts.  But I wonder if the focus is not somewhat awry here.  The idea behind the program is human interaction – not numbers of words.

The home visitors who do the training are interacting with parents and caregivers in the participating families.  It is likely that the meaning of this human interaction to those who are often isolated with babies and young children is greater than the numbers counted.  The relationships established in the process of teaching and learning undoubtedly play a significant role in the ability of caregivers to interact with their children in more meaningful ways. 

At the same time that human interaction has become a focus for brain development and verbal competence, the tech world has created an interactive program in which children speak to an iPad.  A child having a conversation with an imaginary character from a show he is watching is called “adorable,” and the interactive future of tablet-based television watching.  This approach is seemingly justified by the amount of time children spend watching TV and by the idea that a child is interacting and imagining along with a show, instead of passively staring at the screen.

Ron Suskind has written movingly about his autistic son with whom he was able to communicate in language from the boy’s favorite cartoon characters.  A child with a disorder that impairs his ability to communicate was able to express himself in phrases he hears from imaginary characters to whom he relates more easily than to real people.  Using the rote phrases of unreal characters enables him to relate to those who are real.  Instead, the new interactive technology would have children who are capable of human interaction, interacting with imaginary characters on a tablet – the opposite of the goal of the programs described above.

Technology has undoubtedly made possible many worthy advances.  But current usage appears to be moving in a direction away from what we have learned about aspects of human development that we value.  There are those who feel that technology has increased human communication.  It is certainly true that social interaction has become global, in addition to the use made within smaller groups of family and friends to stay in contact.

However, perhaps we need to stop to consider what is being lost in the process.  Is a child spending time talking to a tablet a worthwhile replacement for imaginary play with friends or even with toys?  An architect writes of the role building with Legos had in developing his creativity, interest in, and ability at construction.  He quotes Frank Lloyd Wright writing of himself as a child playing with then famous wooden blocks, “A small interior world of color and form now came within grasp of small fingers.”  He, himself, writes, “…you have to take things apart if you seek to put everything together.”

It is personal interaction that is humanizing, promoting the kind of human development we say we seek.  Tech talk does not always promote real communication – the kind between people, not between people and recorders or tablets.