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An Evolving Dialogue on Popular Technology Use

Davis-McFarland, Elise, PhD, CCC-SLP

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000533802.94719.11
Hearing Technology

Dr. Davis-McFarland has enjoyed a rewarding career in higher education that includes teaching, program development, and leadership of speech-language pathology programs, research, and executive-level college administration. She is the 2018 president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

It is a topic generating an intense amount of conversation and scrutiny among parents, clinicians, researchers, and now even the technology industry itself: What is the impact of all our popular technology use? Of course, it appears there is no simple answer—partly because this subject touches many different areas of potential concern: physical health (e.g., obesity, vision), mental health (e.g., depression, anxiety), safety (e.g., meeting strangers online, identity theft), and so on. One of the most interesting angles is how technology overuse affects communication, something so fundamental to our lives that it is the foundation of just about everything we do. This warrants greater attention.

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Over the past decade, our devices have become a major part of our lives. In 2017, Pew Research Center reported that 77 percent of U.S. adults owned a smartphone, up from 35 percent in 2011, making it one of the most quickly-adopted consumer technologies in recent history (Pew Research Center, 2017 The allure is by no means limited to adults. Usage is skyrocketing among children, from toddlers to teenagers. Case in point: A 2017 report from Common Sense Media found that the average amount of time children ages 0-8 spend on a mobile device per day tripled since 2013 (The Common Sense Census, 2017 The amount of time young adults spend on devices is truly mind-boggling. American teenagers (13- to 18-year-olds) average about nine hours (8:56) of entertainment media use on any given day, excluding time spent at school or for homework (The Common Sense Census, 2015

Many of us seem to have a fraught relationship with technology. We think our kids are spending too much time using it, but we find it difficult to put down our own devices (The Common Sense Census, 2016 We agree that devices don't belong at the dinner table, yet half of parents report checking their phones there (ASHA, 2016 Although a healthy balance is sought, it often proves elusive. This desire to unplug has driven a recent uptick in proposed solutions—some of them turning the tables by employing technology to limit its use. One much publicized example is Ariana Huffington's new app Thrive (Fatherly, 2018

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One of the more remarkable developments of the past year is growing introspection within Silicon Valley on how the popular technology it created is being used. Several leading figures have publicly raised technology overuse as a concern, questioning its impact on society. This has come from shareholders and former executives at companies including Apple, Google, and Facebook.

This self-examination is consistent with findings from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) polls. In January 2017 and 2018, ASHA surveyed attendees of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)—the largest annual gathering of technology insiders in the world—about their opinion on popular technology use (ASHA Survey, 2017; ASHA Survey, 2018 Though not scientific (respondents were a mix of attendees who visited ASHA's exhibit booth), the results are telling. Among them:

  • 88 percent of surveyed attendees thought it is important that more prominent industry figures speak out about tech overuse (2018 survey);
  • 86 percent said they would attend a venue, restaurant, or social gathering where personal device usage is prohibited (2018);
  • 67 percent said children should not be allowed to have their own personal tech devices until age 10 or older. Almost a third said children shouldn't even use devices until age 10 or older (2018);
  • 87 percent believed children are spending too much time with technology (2017);
  • 74 percent felt today's popular technology is negatively affecting conversation and social interaction (2017); and
  • 80 percent thought the potential impact of technology should be considered part of a product or an app's development process (2017).
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ASHA has been a national leader in voicing the need for healthy use of popular technology from the very beginning, not long after the iPod became the phenomenon that launched a new generation of popular technology devices. Initially, ASHA highlighted the potential risk of hearing loss attached to misuse (listening to devices at too-loud volumes for too long) of devices. In 2006, we commissioned a large-scale national survey about the listening habits of teens and adults who use personal electronic devices that documented widespread misuse within both groups (ASHA, 2006 Media coverage was worldwide.

For the next decade, ASHA consistently encouraged safe listening through its award-winning “Listen to Your Buds” campaign. Using a variety of tactics, the Buds campaign promoted simple preventative messages, such as keep the volume down, take listening breaks, and model good listening habits. Its safe listening concert series brought professional musicians into elementary schools across the country to deliver a fun yet educational message of hearing protection to children at a formative age—before bad habits form. Post-concert surveys of educators consistently praised the efficacy of the campaign and underscored the need for its safe listening message. Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized the campaign as an effective public education tool.

Remarkably, the issue of noise-induced hearing loss from tech misuse remains more relevant than ever. In 2015, when launching a campaign called “Make Listening Safe,” WHO reported that 1.1 billion young people worldwide are at risk of hearing loss from exposure to excessive noise levels from popular technology devices and in noisy entertainment venues (WHO, 2015 WHO asked ASHA to collaborate in developing this campaign.

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As the “Listen to Your Buds” campaign approached its 10-year anniversary, one thing was clear: The issue of popular technology and communication implications encompassed more than hearing loss. With younger and younger children increasingly using tablets and other devices, ASHA raised concerns about the potential impact on speech/language development. While research was limited, it drew upon what has been proven to be the most effective way for children to develop strong communication skills—day-to-day verbal interactions with parents and others. Solitary tech use should not take time away from these critical interactions, ASHA warned.

In 2015, ASHA expanded the focus of its public education along these lines. It polled parents of young children about their attitudes toward technology use (ASHA poll, 2015 It surveyed its own members—audiologists and speech-language pathologists—for their perspectives (a majority reported foreseeing a “communication time bomb” in the form of diminished hearing and speech abilities if current habits don't change; ASHA survey, 2016 It introduced a series of public service announcements on young children and technology (examples here: Additionally, it began collaborating with other national groups on content, such as these articles with the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Parents of Young Children: Put Down Your Smartphones” and “10 Non-Tech Holiday Gift Ideas to Promote Kids’ Language & Learning” And ASHA ramped up traditional media outreach, such as the widely shared op-ed, “Babies Don't Need Smartphones,” in USA Today. It promoted tips for balance via a “digital diet” (An important caveat in this outreach is that children who use augmentative and alternative communication devices should continue to use them at all times—and in an interactive way.)

Ultimately, this led ASHA to launching a new umbrella effort, the Healthy Communication & Popular Technology Initiative, earlier this year ( The intent is to safeguard healthy communication in a technology-driven world. Through this effort, ASHA intends to be a force for moderate tech use that encourages conversation, human interaction, and safe listening.

To empower parents, educators, health professionals, and influencers to put healthy communication first, the initiative will do the following:

  1. Provide practical advice to individuals and families to develop responsible tech habits,
  2. Create communication health awareness campaigns promoting balanced use of popular technology, and
  3. Explore the impact of popular technology usage on healthy speech, language, and hearing.

As it evolves, ASHA foresees this to become an umbrella effort under which ad hoc efforts will explore a wide range of areas, from hearing loss, to speech/language development, to social interaction, to adult communication, and much more. It is worth noting that these efforts are not anti-technology. ASHA always maintains it is not the devices themselves, but how they are used, that could be problematic. Messages will encourage healthy usage of popular technology—and I am heartened that so many, including many prominent figures in the tech industry, have started embracing this message. This effort is also intended to be a platform for showcasing the expertise of audiologists and speech-language pathologists. ASHA is encouraging them to use campaign resources locally to raise their profiles in their communities on a health question of wide relevance and growing concern.

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