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Meet An Expert: Interview With Krupa Murugesan, Speech Language Therapist And Academician.

Krupa Murugesan

Krupa Murugesan is a Speech Language Pathologist/ Therapist by profession with a decade of qualified experience working with young children with communication disorders and their families. Her work focuses on empowering parents and families to facilitate communication better in their children. In an academic avatar, she is a Senior Lecturer at the Dept of Speech Language and Hearing Sciences of Sri Ramachandra University and Medical Centre, Porur, Chennai. She also volunteers as a Consultant Speech Therapist at Vasantham, a 25-year old pioneering NGO for children with developmental disabilities, run by her social entrepreneur mother, Mrs. Alli Murugesan.

Hello Krupa! It is lovely to reconnect with you. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview.

Hello! Thanks for the opportunity and the work that you are doing!

Let's start with a basic question:

How early does communication develop in children?

Communication development begins at a very young age, say 3-4 months where children begin to cry differently for various reasons ranging from wetting the nappy to expressing hunger. Gradually smiling when seeing known person, trying to vocalise when spoken to begin to develop over next few months. Children begin to express in words by 12 months of age, which turn to phrases and sentences over the next few months and years. By 24 months, most children speak in 2-3 word combinations.

In our MediaParenting work, we find that parental attitudes to screen time advisories range from skepticism to sometimes even downright ridicule. So for the record, from the expert: Is there a link between screen time and development of communication?

Definitely YES. Excessive screen time influences the development of communication to a large extent. Several research studies all over the world, irrespective of cultural differences have proven that longer screen times have adverse effects such as behavioural issues, anxiety, obesity, sleep disturbances as well as cognitive, learning and communication difficulties. All these affects are linked at different extents.

A recent incident reported in India about a 9 year old boy who cut his hand with a knife because his tab was taken away disturbed me a lot. Where are we heading to? This boy was gifted with a personal tab on his 4th birthday. Later, he was reported to have several behavioural and socialization difficulties. But that should be obvious! Do you think a young child obsessed with an electronic gadget will play with peers around? Forget playing, will he/ she even say hello or recognize that another soul is around? Technology is immersive and addictive.

I am sure all of us are reminded of ourselves or someone we know who encourages screen time in young children. It is a chicken and egg vicious circle: Are parents encouraging screen time and therefore children get addicted, or children begin pestering them and parents give in eventually, unable to stop it. Such is the scenario in families with so-called ‘normal’ children.

On the other hand, when there is significant delay in communication development in children with various developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disability and attention deficit hyperactive disorders, parents tend to engage those children through screens. This further hinders the development of already delayed communication skills. I was involved in a research recently where we observed most homes with typically developing children has television switched on for a minimum 2-4 hours per day, while in homes of children with autism spectrum disorders the screen time was ranging from 4-12 hours per day. So let the academics worry about technicalities. Parents should recognize the problem as a problem first.

That is a sobering wake-up call. I have personally seen how this vicious cycle is set up in many instances. The problem is, unless there is a clinical level of developmental disability, we tend to ignore other pointers as just childhood tantrums. Could you also tell us about the "softer" impact, the behavioural changes that exposure to television or gadgets leads to?

Direct behavioural changes are tantrums and irritability when not permitted to watch television or use gadgets. Of late many renowned cartoon characters videos in youtube tend to have abusive behaviours initiated by one of the characters or having unrelated non-child friendly vocabulary and content inbetween the videos. Even some advertisements in the name of creativity impose wrong ideas into young minds. So the impact is multi-fold.

Please tell us about your professional experience in this regard. Could you give us a case study?

There are numerous such examples. Atleast 3-4 children among every 10 children I consult have a minimum of 2 hours of screen time per day. There are children aged 2 and 3 who speak extremely fluent like a cartoon character, but can't say ‘amma’ or ‘appa’. I remember a child at whose house, the television runs from 6 am in the morning till 10/11 pm at the night. This child used to throw tantrums when the television was switched off. We worked on reducing it gradually. When interesting people games were introduced, peer interaction encouraged, the television addiction vanished and the child’s communication development took a spike in development. There are many such similar instances and these are becoming very common these days in families living here in India and abroad.

On the other hand, there are smart yet spoilt children who use WhatsApp to ask friends who completed the homework for the day to take a photo and send it. So that the he/she can copy the homework.

Sometimes, it seems tough on us parents. When there is so much technology around, it seems almost inevitable that children will get stuck to one form of screen time or the other. What role do you think parents can play in this scenario?

Yes. Television and gadgets create addiction in most people…both children and adults! First, most of us as parents set wrong role models by constantly using our phones while we are at home, when we should ideally be playing with our children. We often prioritse WhatsApp or FaceBook or Twitter over interacting with the other people at home.

Secondly, with increasing nuclear families and restricted play partners, television and gadgets have become handy to keep children occupied while parents are busy in household chores or professional routines. Parents really need to figure out a different way of keeping children occupied or get a better nanny.

Thirdly, quite a few parents feel proud when kids tend to operate gadgets at young ages. This makes them overlook the danger zone.

Lastly, while travelling or waiting at the doctor's, kids are made to sit with a youtube video on. When will he/ she learn to wait? When will he/ she learn to look around, explore and observe what's happening around him/ her? Kids can be updated to the current developments in technology, but is that necessary while compromising on their value for people around and on their own development? All these stem from the parents.

That is true indeed. Thank you for sharing Krupa! Any final thoughts that can help our parent readers?

As much as technological development is a boon, it’s a bane too. It is not advisable to have screen time of more than 30 minutes per day, especially for children less than 6 years of age. Even that needs to be with adult supervision and participation. Participation in the sense, talking about the programme that runs on television or on iPad/ tab/ phone, instead of the child just watching them alone. There are numerous indoor and outdoor games which facilitate various skill development from creativity, socialization, taking turns (this is absolutely lacking in most children of this generation), etc.

I know I have raised a lot of issues in this interview. Without getting defensive, if each of us starts thinking about solutions for these, life will get easier. Few points to re-think and begin following:

  • As adults we need to reduce our own screen time, especially while with kids

  • Restrict screen time to a maximum of 30 minutes per day. Not just the child’s, but the entire family’s

  • Keep the interaction going even while watching television/ using an app on a tab or phone

  • If there are household chores to be attended to, engage the child along in your chore instead of putting him/ her in front of screen

  • Play people games along with the child. (Trust me… it is a great de-stresser for us as well)

Thank you so much Krupa! You are clear and concise and we hear your message! We look forward to more wisdom from you in the future. Good luck with your PhD!

And you dear readers, do tell us what you think in comments. And as always, take care!

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