Our lives are hitched to technology through use of computers, television, tablets, smartphones or video games. This exposure is not limited to adults as even babies are hooked up to screens. This technologizing of kids, their childhood seems to be a buzz around parenting circles and for quite valid reasons one must say! Before acquiring any other skill, a baby learns to hold phone. Those little fingers can swiftly swipe videos on cell phone before they learn to hold building blocks. Some parents may consider it as an accomplishment. However, research has shown disturbing facts regarding behavioral, cognitive and language delays associated with screen time. The longer time infants and toddlers spend on screen time, the fewer words they are able to speak in early years. This brings us to a serious concern as parents; does screen time really causes speech delay in children?
Let’s establish first what Screen Time actually is!
Screen time is any amount of time that a child spends in front of a turned-on screen. Whether it is screen of a handheld game or mobile, TV show, computer or laptop screen, it is screen time. And we are not going to exclude the learning apps and TV programs that claim to make your child smart, and learn and talk early. Screen time is screen time. Parents need to understand how much exposure children are getting to this screen time. Also what possible adverse effects it can have on them physically and mentally.
Reasons for Increased Screen Time in Children
Despite several warnings by relevant pediatricians and healthcare associations, there are several factors that has increased exposure of children to screen time recently.
Obsession with own child: This might sound odd to a lot of readers but parents today are far more obsessed with children’s growth than earlier generations. The urge to feed the child on time even when they are not hungry has made so many parents give up their resolve to never allow screen time to their young babies (Sounds relatable?) In order to calm down a tantrum throwing toddler during mealtimes, parents hook them up in front of screens. The kid is hooked to screen while the food reaches its destination and saves time for all parties. Sounds pretty good deal to some parents (Hint: IT IS NOT!)
Lack of Time Management: Between house chores, managing work and looking after a young child, it is often difficult for parents to manage their time. Therefore, it is pretty common for parents to provide toddlers with videos, rhymes or games on screen so they can hush up while chores are done.
Misconceptions about Technology: We are constantly being bombarded with advertisements for new apps and games. These claim to make a child super smart from infancy. Thousands of educational apps, games and puzzles on phones and tablets boasts of teaching numbers, words, sentences and nursery rhythms to as young as a 6-month old. Therefore, it is not surprising why parents fall for such narratives sold without consulting experts.
However, as more scientific studies emerge, it is alarming to see the strong inverse correlation between speech development and screen time. Therefore, it is important to look at it from empirical point of view. Understand the implications of screen time on speech delaying in children.
Milestones of Speech Development
It is important to understand that each child’s growth and development is unique. The developmental milestones established by experts are based on scientific studies. These milestones are created to assist parents in keeping track of their child’s growth. This is done in comparison with majority of healthy children around the globe. However, majority of deviations from the standard charts are merely differences in physical, social, and psychological surroundings. These differences lead to the difference in growth indicators. For speech development, following are the milestones developed by American Academy of Pediatrician (AAP) for children aged 3 months to 2 years.
How Screen Time affects Language Development?
It is proven that children learn communication skills through live interactions with other human beings. Psychologists and pediatricians around the globe have asserted the significance of language development during early years. More importantly, the significance of human interaction that teaches children to communicate in different social settings. During the early years, brain is highly receptive to new languages and expressions which later on helps with social skills. With advent of mobile phones and tablets, we see a constant increase in children with communication delays and cognitive disorders. These include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning, speaking, reading and writing disabilities. Aphasia, which is difficulty in understanding or speaking parts of language and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), that is difficulty in understanding meaning of sounds, are some of the direct language development disorders.
Now the question arises that how screen time is responsible for these delays. The answer is, it is not always the culprit. However, a large number of empirical studies around the globe have found a strong correlation between the two. Let’s take a look at some findings to understand this relationship.
Empirical studies on Speech Delay and Screen Time
National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted a study on more than 100 children under the age of 12. The research was done using MRI scans to evaluate how screen time changes brain structure in young pupil. It was found that kids who spent more than 2 hours on smartphones and handheld devices scored lower on cognitive and language tests. Some of the measures included were quantity of time spent as well as quality of content watched. From videos, movies to educational programs and games. The study concluded that for each 30-minute usage of handheld device led to 45% increased risk of expressive speech delay.
Similarly, a study conducted by Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) in 2017 used 18 month long check-ups of 894 children from age 6 months to 24 months in Toronto. The study aimed at evaluating language delays in children using more than recommended screen time. It was found that on average children watched screens for at least half an hour a day and the more screen time a child reported to have availed, the greater negative impact was observed in use of language and communication skills.
Another study by American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used sample of 1000 parents of children under age of 2. They study found similar results. It concluded that for every 1 hour of videos that toddlers watched in a day, they said 6-8 fewer words than toddlers who had lesser screen time.
Relentless Content and Ability of a Child’s Brain
It is interesting to note that all these studies found correlation of less screen time with more quality time with caregivers. This is due to the fact that human interactions proceed according to sender and receiver’s mutual understanding. Technological devices are incapable of comprehending that. This asserts an important point that how human interaction, as traditionally suggested, can result in positive effect on developmental stages. When a child is left to learn from a screen instead of human interaction, their brains become recipient of high speed and uncoordinated content. This cannot match the amount of information that child is actually understanding and absorbing. Moreover, sticking to the screen affects listening abilities of children. This is because their brain is glued to the screens. The constant inflow of images and sounds and thus, weakens their ability to listen to people around them.
Recommendations to curb Language Development Delays in Kids
Based on recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) and The Journal of Pediatrics, parents of young children need to not only regulate screen time for kids, but also change the way screen time is observed in their homes. Some of the recommendations include:
- Selecting only Quality Content to watch with children
- Assure co-watching of videos with children
- Talking with children while watching videos or even using educational apps
- Become part of child’s screen time instead of leaving them to their devices. This can lead to not only speech delays but lack of ability to effectively communicate socially
- Try to cut off screen time for longer period even for a day to observe changes in their interaction with environment and people around them
- Remember expert recommendations for age-appropriate screen time and gradually increase it
- Last but not the least, as your child grows up, display a responsible digital behavior to be a positive role model for your child