How Social Media Could Change Our Understanding of Children

My youngest didn’t talk until he was 2. I knew he was fine—but it was hard to get people to believe me.

When I say that Liam didn’t talk, I really mean it. Liam said absolutely nothing until he turned 2—and then, all he said was “Mama.” Our pediatrician was concerned. Relatives were concerned. Neighbors were concerned. My other kids would say to me, “Shouldn’t Liam be talking by now?” “He’s fine,” I told them.

Finally, I had him tested—as a pediatrician, I was beginning to feel sheepish. Indeed, his expressive language skills—his ability to produce words—were at a 12-month level when he was 24 months old. Not good. But his receptive language skills—his ability to understand words—were at a 36-month level, a full year ahead. Three months after the evaluation, he started speaking in full sentences—and he hasn’t shut up in the five years since.

That’s what I knew about Liam: I knew he understood absolutely everything going on, and then some. And while he didn’t use words, Liam communicated with us seamlessly. Moving through a day with Liam, it was easy to never realize that he wasn’t using words. When he was ready, I knew that the words would come; for him it wasn’t such a big deal, because they weren’t really necessary.

But to understand that the way I did, you needed to be with him—and not just for a few minutes in a doctor’s office, but for hours, in our home. It was really hard for me to explain to our pediatrician or to anyone—for them, he was a 2-year-old who didn’t talk at all, and lots of kids like that do have something wrong with them, like developmental delay or hearing problems or autism.

That’s what I thought about when I watched Deb Roy’s TED talk, “The Birth of a Word.” Now, I think it’s a little weird to wire your entire house with cameras and microphones and compile 90,000 hours of video and 140,000 hours of audio. But what he learned about his son’s language development was truly fascinating—especially how the behavior of the adults around the boy dovetailed with the emergence of new words. There seemed to be feedback loops, with the boy and his caretakers reacting to and learning from each other.

That’s the thing: children live, play, communicate and learn in a context. The people that surround them and what those people say and do, as well as the physical environment, have everything to do with everything. As a doctor, I don’t get to see that context. There are services like Early Intervention that go to the home, but they can’t see everything—and things are sometimes different when they are there.

Imagine if we could learn more about that context. Imagine if we could watch children in their natural habitat. We could make good and early diagnoses of real problems—and learn so much not just about how children learn and develop, but also about what we can do to help them do both.

Most people aren’t going to wire their homes like Roy did, obviously. But lots of people take home videos. If they sent them in somewhere, we could use the technology Roy used and see so much we can’t see in an exam room.  And just think of the hours and hours of video of children that have been uploaded to the Internet and are uploaded every day as people chronicle their daily lives for their Facebook friends—so much of it is already publicly available, and I’m sure there are ways people could tag video to make it easily found by researchers. We could have an incredible database—we do already.

Too many people roll their eyes about social media. They think of it as a way to waste time or sell things. But social media has tremendous potential. It has tremendous potential to connect us, to make our big world smaller—and it has tremendous potential to teach us, to make our big world more understandable.