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  • Writer's pictureLois Brady

Cognitive Dissonance and Excessive Screen Time’s Negative Effects on Language Development

In 1957, social psychologist, Leon Festinger, described a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. This theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in harmony. Moreover, we feel real, physical discomfort when there is a conflict between what we do and what we believe.

Here is a classic example often used to describe this phenomenon: A smoker may have inconsistent thoughts/behaviors regarding their cigarette smoking behavior — They know that smoking is bad, but still choose to smoke. In order to lessen the physical discomfort from this conflict, they will engage in one or more of the following behaviors:

  1. Modify one of their thoughts (e.g. “Ah, I really don’t smoke THAT much, so I’m ok”)

  2. Trivialize the behavior (e.g. “Hmm, actually I don’t think smoking is a big deal. The evidence is weak that smoking causes cancer”)

  3. Add thoughts (e.g. “I exercise and eat healthy, so my smoking behavior won’t hurt me that much)

  4. Deny the dissonance (e.g. “Smoking and cancer aren’t related") or

  5. Change their behavior (e.g. stop smoking)

It seems clear which option is the most appropriate, but changing behavior is not so simple. Following social, cultural, environmental, and institutional norms often creates blind spots in our thinking and can provide unconscious cues to engage in target behaviors. On a daily basis, we engage in many negative behaviors that create cognitive dissonance (e.g. hitting the snooze, playing too many video games, eating just one more cookie). Luckily for smokers, there are countless

products, support groups, and apps to help begin the process of positive behavioral change.

So, how does this all relate to speech and language development? Well, the harrowing news is that most caregivers in this day and age are using devices such as smartphones and tablets to reduce their need to constantly attend to their children. To clarify, this behavior is most detrimental when children are given unfettered and unsupervised access to devices. When left to their own devices, children will naturally engage in obsessively swiping from app to app or from one piece of content to another. This is known as digital elopement. Digital eloping involves swiping away non-preferred content or changing apps repeatedly. It can interfere with attending to important instructional content, or it may even impact users’ ability to focus their attention for extended periods of time — both of which reshape brain circuits and have negative impacts on learning. This is not a simple case of negligence; parents are overworked and stressed by many of modern life’s challenges. In many cases, this strategy does seem to work in the short term — it allows the parent or caregiver to free their attention for necessary tasks (e.g. cleaning, cooking, etc.).

There are also have an overwhelming number of social, cultural, and environmental cues telling us to use our devices to solve our problems. Not to mention media and advertising normalizing their everyday use across all environments. However, with new information/research showing clear links between unsupervised/excessive screen time and difficulties with cognitive development, attention, and (in our cases as speech pathologists) language development, there is most likely some cognitive dissonance in the minds of young parents. It is past the point of denial or trivialization. Even the American Psychological Association notes that “excessive screen time on mobile devices can interfere with some children’s ability to notice, attend to, and imitate speech and language in their home environments” (APA, 2017).

So, what can we do? The first step is to realize that we are putting our children at risk for cognitive and developmental delays. The second is to name any unhelpful strategies we are using to offset our cognitive dissonance (e.g. modifying, trivializing, etc.). The third step is to understand that we have the power and choice to change our behaviors — even if we take small steps. One easy first step is to simply make sure that caregivers are present and interacting with the child when they are using technology. Language thrives in this interaction. Also, there are tools such as guided access which can prevent users from swiping away from a target app and can minimize digital elopement. It is not useful to add to our dissonance by blaming ourselves and feeling guilty. Rather, understand that we are all in the same boat, and any steps we take now to mitigate the negative effects of technology will help our children to be successful and happy in the future. To clarify, I’m not trying to demonize technology — it is, in fact, a wonderful tool that opens up worlds of growth and learning for many of our kids (especially those on the disabilities). However, excess of almost anything creates unintended and, often, negative consequences downstream. This can be the time to choose harmony in the face of dissonance and to help create a better future for our children.

- Garrrett Oyama MA CCC-SLP

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