Screen Time. Now that’s a word that has likely brought fear, guilt, confusion, and uncertainty to many parents. It’s a topic we’re all too aware of, yet most of us know little about. As a speech therapist and expectant mother, I’ve found myself thinking about screen time, and its effects on language development, quite a bit recently. (Usually it’s when I’m an hour deep into scrolling through social media or watching mindless videos and I suddenly worry about setting a bad example for my future baby.) Wherever our interest in screen time comes from, whether it be worry (as in my case) or genuine curiosity, it’s helpful to know what current research says about it so we can each decide how much screen time we feel comfortable allowing our children to have.
While technology and screen time have become a huge part of our lives in the last decade, research on the effects of screen time is limited. As researchers and pediatric specialists are becoming more invested in the topic, research focusing on the effects of screen time is on the rise. And though limited, the studies we do currently have indicate that screen time likely has a negative impact on language development in children.
One prominent study focuses on the correlation between the amount of time that 18-month-olds spend using handheld devices and the likelihood of a later expressive language delay. Researchers found that the more handheld screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have an expressive language delay (AAP, 2017). A similar study looked at the hours that 2 to 24-month-old children spent watching TV and movies. The study found that for each hour of media viewed, babies experienced a decrease in their language score on a widely used speech and language assessment (Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007).
How Children Learn
But why the associated risk between too much screen time and language development? After all, several apps on handheld devices and almost all YouTube videos actually expose a child to language… right?
Well, as researchers have looked at how children learn sounds and language, they’ve come to understand that children learn language best through live human interaction.
In looking at how infants learn the sounds in their native language, researchers have found that all babies are born with the keen ability to discriminate between all the sounds of all languages across the world. Unlike you and me, this means that a baby born to an English-speaking family can actually hear and discern the sounds used in Mandarin or Arabic or any other language they may hear. But, this ability tends to go away by a baby’s first birthday. This knowledge has helped us better understand that babies are constantly learning from the people (and the native language) they are most often around. Furthermore, as babies learn the sounds that make up their native language, their brain actually changes (Kuhl, Tsao & Lieu, 2003).
In an effort to learn more about the role that person-to-person contact plays in language development, one study looked at how infants responded to hearing the sounds of a non-native language from both direct instruction (person to person) and from being instructed via TV or audio. This study found that 9-10-month-olds born to English-speaking families who were exposed to 5 hours of Mandarin each week by an in-person Mandarin speaker were able to detect and discern speech sounds in the Mandarin language as well as babies who lived in Taiwan. However, the group of babies who were exposed to the same instruction via TV or audio saw no effect. They lost the ability to identify Mandarin sounds and scored similar to babies in the control group who had received no exposure to Mandarin at all (Kuhl, Tsao & Lieu, 2003).
A similar study found that children between 15-24 months were able to learn new words quicker and easier through direct instruction than through listening to these words through television programs (Krcmar, Grela & Lin, 2007).
These studies indicate that children learn language from live human interaction with individuals and not through handheld devices or TV sets. While we can’t say that the specific YouTube videos or apps that claim to support language development hurt in any way, we also can’t say that these apps are helping our sweet babies learn language.
So, what do the experts currently recommend in regards to screen time? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend any screen time before the 18-24-month window, and recommends up to 1 hour of “high quality” screen time for 2-5-year-olds. It’s important to note that FaceTime is exempt from this… so continue FaceTiming Grandma each night (Myers, Lewitt & Maselli, 2016).
These standards shocked me because it seems almost impossible to prevent some amount of screen time before the age of 2. After all, we as parents, are on our phones and devices almost every day. Especially during these unique times where many of us are working from home. So, I think the best rule of thumb is to do what we can to limit screen time…But, if our baby is exposed to some screen time here or there, we should not feel guilty. And we must remember that language impairments have been around long before screen time became part of our culture. If your child has developed a language delay, please do not feel guilty about what you might have done or haven’t done… What’s important is that we do our best and give our children what they need now.
Screen Time Alternatives
Avoiding screen time is easier said than done… we’ve all been in the grocery line and seen a little one crying out of frustration and a frenzied mother handing them a device in the hopes they’ll settle down. And… often that does the trick. The ease of giving our children screens makes it difficult to change these habits. But just know, we’re all in this together, and taking small and simple steps away from the dependence on screens can make a big difference. Below are some ideas of activities that can be implemented in place of screen time. Although broken down into ages, the majority of these activities can be used with children of all ages.
1) Reading books
2) Going on walks
3) Playing hide-n-seek
4) Using sensory bins
5) Playing with balls
6) Playing on a playground
7) Taking a fun bath
8) Going to the library
9) Playing with musical instruments (e.g. playing a xylophone with mom)
10) Putting puzzles together
11) Looking at old pictures together
1) Playing with cars and driving them through “tunnels” made out of chairs, boxes, etc.
2) Making crafts
3) Stacking colored cups
4) Playing in a sandbox
5) “Cleaning” the house (AKA giving child a spray bottle and a rag and asking them to help you clean)
1) Making pillow forts
2) Toniebox for Audiobooks
4) Fun baths- adding glow sticks, shaving cream, food coloring, etc.
1) Making snacks
2) Playing in water tubs outside
3) Playing board games
4) Dressing up
In summary, current research shows that it is best to limit the amount of time our babies spend using devices or watching TV or other forms of media. As therapists at Beyond Therapy for Kids, we know limiting screen time can be difficult. As always, we are here to support you. So, please feel free to ask us questions or for more recommendations. We are all in this together.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, May 4). Handheld screen time linked with speech delays in young children: New research being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting suggests the more time children under 2 years old spend playing with smartphones, tablets and other handheld screens, the more likely they are to begin talking later. ScienceDaily.
Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F., & Liu, H. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(15), 9096-9101. doi:10.1073/pnas.1532872100
Marina Krcmar, Bernard Grela & Kirsten Lin (2007) Can Toddlers Learn Vocabulary from Television? An Experimental Approach, Media Psychology, 10:1, 41-63, DOI: 10.1080/15213260701300931
Myers, L. J., Lewitt, R. B., Gallo, R. E., & Maselli, N. M. (2016). Baby FaceTime: Can toddlers learn from online video chat? Developmental Science, 20(4). doi:10.1111/desc.12430
Zimmerman, F. J., Christakis, D. A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151(4), 364-368. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.04.071
Nikki Hajje, M.S., CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at Beyond Therapy for Kids in Ridgeland, Mississippi. She has special interests in bilingual speech-language services and phonological disorders. Originally from California, she’s now enjoying all things the South has to offer.