Child-development professionals have long suspected that screen time with hand-held electronic devices like smart phones and tablets can negatively affect children’s development. Now, science is beginning to agree.
Last year, the first-ever study to examine a link between screen time and language delays was published and presented at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting. In the study, involving 894 children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, researchers recorded amounts of screen time with hand-held devices, administered language delay screenings, and found that every 30-minute increase in daily screen time was linked to a 49% increased risk of an expressive speech delay.
Expressive language (what we communicate) is one of three branches of language, along with receptive language (what we understand), and pragmatic/social language (how we navigate social interaction).
We checked in with speech-language pathologists Mandy Alvarez and Melissa Marinelli Izquierdo for their thoughts on screen time and language development.
“In our practice we’ve seen a rise not only in the expressive language delays the study points out, but also in receptive and pragmatic language delays,” Alvarez and Marinelli say. “This has happened alongside a rise in electronics use among children as young as babies and toddlers.”
Although more studies (like the one mentioned above) are needed, Alvarez and Izquierdo explain some of the ways a child may miss out on critical aspects of language development when he’s in front of a screen.
Conversation & Other Human Interaction
The number of words babies and toddlers hear is linked to better language skills, but it’s not just the words that matter. Every time a caregiver talks to a child (even before the child can talk back) language learning is happening on multiple levels: The child is taking in words, vocal intonation, gestures and facial expressions—all the while connecting dots between these things and what they mean. A child gets none of this rich learning when he is using an electronic device.
Learning to Filter Information
An important receptive language task is being able to choose what to pay attention to while filtering out other things. We learn this by being in different environments, noticing what’s going on around us, and choosing where to place our attention. When a child is in front of a screen, the screen dictates where he should place his attention, and the child immediately stops noticing what’s happening around him.
Over time, this can weaken his ability to take in and filter information, as well as switch attention from one task to another. Trouble shifting attention can cause academic problems down the road, like difficulty copying from a board, scanning a room, taking notes, and even reading.
Play provides so many language learning opportunities that it’s hard to elaborate on them all!
When babies are interacting with three-dimensional toys they’re learning tangible language concepts like size, texture, and quantity. Looking at pictures of shapes on a screen doesn’t come close to this.
When a caregiver participates in their play, they learn things like vocabulary, grammar, sequencing, and all of the interaction-based language lessons mentioned above. When toddlers begin pretend play, social language learning is supercharged as they act out real-life scenarios that have sparked their attention. None of this learning occurs during screen time.
It’s important to note, too, that just as there are milestones for movement, there are also milestones for play. Play skills build on each other, and each requires practice. We’ve seen school-aged children who spent a lot of time with screens when they were younger and now lack the age-appropriate play skills to participate in a board game (understanding concepts, switching attention from one thing to the next, taking turns, resolving conflict, managing emotions around losing the game, etc.).
Lastly, giving a baby or toddler an electronic device because they’re bored only sets him up for a broad tendency towards boredom, simply because he is not learning through play how to be creative with his free time.
To learn about the effects of screen time on other areas of development, as well as the American Academy of Pediatric’s recommended screen time limits, head over here.
Mandy Alvarez, M.S., CCC-SLP and Melissa Marinelli Izquierdo, M.S., CCC-SLP are Director and Assistant Director, respectively, of Integrated Children’s Therapy, a Miami-based speech-language and occupational therapy practice with an emphasis on social communication.