The Great Input Deficit: How the Communication Revolution is Teaching our Children to Remain Silent
The Great Input Deficit
How the Communication Revolution
is Teaching our Children to Remain Silent
By Wendy Calise
Communicate [Latin communicare to share, impart, partake]. What do these words have in common? They
involve giving or receiving, an exchange between people. The cornerstone of
communication, that skill advanced to its highest form by the human race alone.
But, is it possible that amidst the most advanced technology
for communication in the history of mankind in a time when one man in Chad
can communicate simultaneously with an unlimited number of people in an
unlimited number of places in an inordinately short period of time is it
possible in the midst of this time that our children are becoming less adept at communicating?
I propose that it is possible, that it is happening in
fact, has already happened. A significant number of young children appear to be
lacking the fundamental hallmarks of communication. It is not that they can't
talk, though some struggle with this as well. Many children are not aware that
they should respond when their names are called. They don't know to look at a
person when being spoken to. They do not initiate or maintain eye contact. They
don't seem to understand that the words directed to them have any practical
meaning. They are not able to attend long enough to hear both the beginning and
the end of a sentence and consequently often walk away in the midst of a
communication. They don't seem to realize that there is anything in this thing communication for them at all. And this is not referring to the
rudeness of a society in a constant hurry. Children are not refusing to do
these things. They simply don't know they should. They have not learned the
process. It is as if they have been raised in near isolation and missed the
critical period for the development of these patently human skills. It is as if
they are suffering from a Great Input Deficit. Far too many children are not
constructing in the first years of life the necessary framework upon which
communication is built and without which it cannot stand.
So what exactly is going on? At once too much and too little.
Many young children are being over-stimulated by everything except other human
beings. They are getting far too much television, too much computer time, too
many videos, too many toys that talk and buzz and whir. And far too little of
simple human interaction.
How do we know this is happening? A 2004 survey indicated that
more than half of a group of parents asked believed that videos were "very
important to children's intellectual development."1 In 2003 there were approximately 140 video products
targeted for children under two. As of 2006: 750. 2 In the homes of 30% of Americans the television is
on for the majority of the day. 3 Before the age of two, 25% of toddlers have a TV in
their bedroom. 4 At
only three months of age 40% of infants are regularly viewing DVDs, videos or
television; by two nearly 90% of toddlers are in front of the TV for between
two and three hours per day.5 In an average week, children spend more than one full day watching television.
6 Children between the ages of two
and five years are on average in front of a screen for more than 32 hours per
week. 7 ".two-thirds
have a television set in their bedrooms, half have a VCR or DVD player, half
have a video game console, and almost one-third have Internet access or a
computer," reports Science Daily about American youth. 8 Seventy percent of day-care centers are allowing
children to watch television on a daily basis. 9
The result? What are our young children gaining from all the
advances of the 21st century? Researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis has
been exploring this question with some rather unsettling conclusions. For every
hour of television the amount of conversation between a baby and parent
decreased by 15%.10 Put the
accent on the word between in the previous sentence. We tend to
focus exclusively on the effect screen time has on the child alone. But the
larger problem is the effect it has on the family experience. The problem is
not just that the toddler isn't talking - no one is. For every hour a
television was on in a house, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult. 11
The number of vocalizations made by
the baby also decreased.Whether we like it or not, our babies are learning. The question is
whether we like what it is that they are learning.
What does the young child learn about reciprocity, the basis
of human communication, from television or DVDs? The programming has its own
pace, its own mood, its own tone, its own rhythm, its own agenda, and never
will it be altered by the needs or reaction of the child who is watching.
Reciprocity is zero. Yet, reciprocity is the framework of communication: an
exchange between two sentient beings. Can we assume that nothing is being lost?
Even more disturbing, Christakis describes the inner
workings of the infant mind as one that is hard wired to attend to novel
stimuli, something which a television provides at a rate of between twenty-five
to sixty distinct images per minute. Rather than loving or concentrating on
videos as many parents have come to believe, it is likely that babies simply
cannot turn away from the constantly changing landscape of television and DVD
programming. 12 It is no
wonder then that the Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for
children under two years. None. The government of France has gone so far as to
prohibit the creation of programming targeted for children younger than three
Christakis further found that the likelihood for attention
difficulties later in childhood increased with the amount of time spent in
front of the television before three years of age. Specifically, chances for
later attention problems increased at a rate of 10% with each additional hour
of TV per day for children less than three years. 13
Another study conducted by Patricia Kuhl at the University
of Washington indicated that children exposed to the Mandarin language by
video, audio, or not at all had the same recognition of Mandarin sounds, which
was none. In contrast, those babies who were played with by a Mandarin speaking
adult for only twelve 25 minute sessions over four weeks did recognize the
sounds of the Mandarin language. 14 A great deal of what babies are learning about communication in their
earliest years includes emotion, facial expressions, and attempts to determine
what those around them feel. It appears that in the case of early childhood,
there is no substitute.
One thing we know about the developing brain is that
synapses that are not used are eliminated. And the young mind is connecting and
eliminating these synapses at an incredible rate. In 1950 the average
vocabulary of a child entering 1st grade was 4000 words. In 1990 the
average had dropped to 1000. 15
The average 14 year old in 1950 had a vocabulary of 25,000 words. In 1999, only
10,000. 16 Assuming
the trend continues, this puts us on a rather alarming trajectory.
And none of this takes into account the amount of time
adults spend on the cell phone or computer, both activities that contribute precious
little input for the developing mind.
Human beings were built to be learning to communicate from
the moment of birth (and many believe even before). By the time the human child
is only one year old, he has come to understand that communication is a
reciprocal endeavor. He knows that it involves eye contact, vocalization, and
physical touch. He knows that it can bring pleasure or pain. By only three, he
has acquired the language(s) of his culture to the extent that he can express
his thoughts in syntactically complex, correct sentences. Most important to
note, however, is that communication is comprised of far more than words. It is
the human connection with another. It is the expression of joy, love, fear. It
is the expression of imagination. It is the making real of the bond that is
Or so it was. The reality is that more children seem to lack
skills so basic that one hardly knows where to start in order to teach them.
How does one construct the foundation of human communication retroactively? Can
it even be done? To be sure there have been vast and varied changes over the
last 50 years, and there are many variables that are impacting our children.
How much of it is media? That is yet to be fully explored. But of the many
things buffeting today's family, it is one of the few over which the parent of
a young child has complete control.
What would happen if we turned the TV off in presence of
young children? Would the vocabulary development return to that of earlier
times? What was so different about the past? Did parents have a plan to help
their children learn to communicate? Not likely. In fact, if asked, parents will
say they didn't work on it at all. They just did it naturally. They talked to
their babies and toddlers. They told them what they were doing. They explained
the way things worked. They had conversations with other family members in
their presence. The children were in attendance in mind, body and spirit when
the carryings on of the day - the washing, the raking, the shopping, the
cooking, the arguing and problem solving - took place.
What infants and young children are learning in the first
years of life is profoundly human. It is the time when the foundation is laid
for emotional connection. And the young child relies solely on input from other
living, breathing, loving people. Input, not just presence. Input cannot be
replaced. And the consequences of the lack of this input cannot be exaggerated
or ignored. The long history of research that confirms that developing children
rely on the physical, social, verbal, and emotional interaction with other
human beings to construct themselves would take pages to cite. It is
indisputable. Communication is our past; it is in our genes, in our DNA.
Perhaps it is time that we consider more carefully not only the innumerable
ways that technology has improved the human condition but also the ways in
which it has diminished it. Perhaps it is time that as families we cleave
together once again, as we have in the past, the recent past, the distant past,
since time immemorial, since the dawn of humanity. It is likely that our future
will depend on it.
Wendy Calise graduated from Northwestern University
with a degree in psychology in 1988. She is the Educational Director at
Countryside Montessori School in Northbrook, IL, where she has taught classes
of children ages three to twelve for nineteen years. She holds Association
Montessori Internationale diplomas at the Primary and Elementary Levels. In
August 2009 she founded the Montessori Teachers Institute for Professional
Studies which offers a variety of continuing education opportunities for
Montessori teachers as well as support for teachers and schools in the form of
mentorship and consultation.