Screen Time and Speech Delays

So what’s the big deal?  Just about every American has a TV in their home.  Most three-year-olds can work my smart phone better than I can.  And I’m constantly seeing parents bring their 5-year-old to superhero movies that are clearly intended for adults.

Screen time for children in American is EVERYWHERE!  Surely it can’t be that bad, right?  Well, let’s take a look at screen time and speech delays. How are all those screens affecting your little one’s language development?

What is Screen Time?

First, let’s define the term.  Screen time refers to any time that your child spends with a screen in front of his face (one that’s turned on, anyway).  That includes a television, movie theater screen, smart phone, tablet, computer, hand-held video game device, DVD player in the car, or anything else with a screen and moving pictures.  It doesn’t matter if your child is watching an educational video or playing a game, screen time is screen time.

How Does Screen Time Take Away from Language Development Time?

Children learn to talk and communicate through interactions with other people.  That’s the way it has always been and that’s the way it will continue to be, despite any new technology that comes our way.  The first several years of life are crucial for your child’s language development.  It is when their brain is the most receptive to learning new language and is building communication pathways that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

Once that window closes, it is much more difficult for someone to learn and develop language skills.  That’s why it’s harder for you to learn a foreign language as an adult and those rare children who were raised by wolves in the woods have a hard time learning to communicate efficiently.

Every minute that your child spends in front of a screen is one fewer minute that he could spend learning from your interactions with him or practicing his interactions with you.  Screen time takes away from time that could (and should) be spent on person-to-person interactions.

Think about a car ride.  If your child has a device in front of him, he quietly sits and watches his favorite show.  You probably don’t interrupt often to talk to him.  On the flip side, if he didn’t have a device, you would most likely be talking to him more, even if he’s not responding.  And if he’s bored, he might start saying something to you as well.  Let’s face it, we like to fill silence so if there’s no screen making noise, we’re more likely to talk.  (This goes for the radio as well, turn off the noise and talk to your child in the car!)

So what about those awesome videos that are supposed to teach your child vocabulary, or sign language, or to read?

Well, they are still just videos.  Yes, vocabulary and reading are important parts of communication, but they are a very small part of a much bigger picture.  Communication is about interacting with others, the give and take.

The speaker responds to the listener’s body language and responses to change and adapt what they are saying.  The listener uses non-verbal cues to gain deeper meaning from the speaker’s message.  There is so much more going on than the list of vocabulary words that the lady in the video is teaching.  Videos do not replace person-to-person interactions for teaching language or communication.

Ok, so it won’t help them, but what’s the harm?

So glad you asked!  Researchers are beginning to publish more and more studies about the detrimental effects of screen time on language development.

This study by Chonchaiya and Pruksananonda found that children who began watching tv before 12 months and who watched more than 2 hours of TV per day were six times more likely to have language delays!  Yikes!!

This study by Duch et. al. also found that children who watched more than 2 hours of TV per day had increased odds of low communication scores.

There are more studies out there that continue to show that watching TV early and often increases your child’s chances of having a speech delay.  That could mean late talking and/or problems with language in school later in life.

Increased screen time has also been linked to attention problems, short-term memory problems, and reading problems.  All of which can play into your child’s ability to learn language as well.

But screen time is a life-saver!  I need it!

I’m a parent, too.  I get it!  Sometimes you just need a break.  Sometimes you’re ready for the quick fix to your child’s boredom, or crying, or hyperactivity.  Sometimes you just want something that will get your child to sit down and be quiet for two minutes so you can have some peace or get something done for once in the day.

Sure, maybe you can actually go to a nice restaurant without your child making a scene if you play a movie on your I-Phone for him.  Yes, you probably can across town without screams if you prop the I-Pad up in front of the car seat.

But at what cost??

Are those few moments of peace worth risking your child’s language development?  Screen time may not harm your child at all, but are you willing to take the risk?

What if my child already has a language or speech delay?

There is no way to tell if too much screen time caused your child’s speech delay or language problems.  Most likely, it was a combination of factors, so there’s no use blaming yourself or feeling guilty.  However, continued overuse of screen time could be making your child’s language delay worse or keeping it from getting better.

Some children do completely fine with tons of screen time.  Some children learn to count, name things, or even read from screens!  However, your child is having trouble with communication so he needs every opportunity possible to hear words spoken to him (by a real person, not a screen) and to practice using sounds and words himself.

I’m not saying that screen time caused your child’s language delay.  I’m saying that it could be making it worse.  Is it really worth risking it?

 So what do I do?  How much is too much??

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages TV and other media use by children younger than 2 years and encourages interactive play.  Of course, your child isn’t going to suddenly stop talking if he sees a few minutes of television so don’t worry if an emergency situation pops up and you have to plop your little one in front of a screen for a few minutes.  But don’t make a habit out of it.  

After 2 years of age, you can lighten up a little, but you should never go above 2 hours per day.  Try to keep it much less than that.

How much can my child (older than 2 years) watch if he has a language delay?

My professional opinion?  None!  At least for a little while.  Try cutting out screen time with your child entirely (if you can) for 30 days.  See if you notice any changes in his communication.  After that, you can reintroduce short amounts of screen time to see if there are any adverse effects.

When you do reintroduce it, you may find that your child’s attention suffers or that she talks less when allowed more screen time.  Then, you may want to consider continuing to have no screen time.  If your child seems to do ok with short amounts of screen time, it’s probably fine to let them be.  But, don’t get too carried away.  Keep screen time to a minimum.

My child is addicted to his screens!  How can I remove them?

If your child is highly addicted to screen time, it’s unreasonable to believe that you’ll be able to get him or her to stop cold turkey.  Start by setting some rules about the screens.  If your child is old enough to understand, talk about why you are limiting screen time and share with him some of the research about what it can do to a young brain.

You can set up your screen time rules however you want.  You can try limiting the maximum number of minutes the child is in front of a screen per day.  Or, you could limit the times that he is allowed to use a screen (for example, only between 4:00 and 6:00).  You could also set parameters on what types of screens or uses your child is allowed to watch, such as what shows or what devices.

Start off by only limiting your child’s screen time slightly.  Then, gradually increase the limits until you have reached the desired amount of screen time.  Also, make sure you replace the times that your child normally would have been using a screen with one of the alternatives below.

What can I do with my child instead of screen time?

Try some of these alternatives to screen time that are way better for your child’s development and will help you build a better relationship with your child as well.  Keep in mind it’s important for you to put away your screens when you interact with your child as well.  Put away your smart phone!  Work or Candy Crush can wait.

  • Talk with your child.  If your child is only giving you one-word responses, try asking more specific questions (like “who did you eat lunch with”) instead of open-ended questions (like “how was your day?”).
  • Sing songs
  • Read a book
  • Play with your child’s favorite toy
  • Color a picture
  • Make a craft project
  • Play in the yard
  • Go for a walk
  • Take your child to a park
  • Go for a car ride and talk about what you see
  • Go to the library and look for books on a topic that interests your child
  • Play a board game
  • Teach your child a new skill
  • Teach or practice a sport in the back yard
  • Ride bikes
  • Go somewhere with an indoor play-place
  • Call up some friends and have a play date
  • Cook something in the kitchen together
  • Plant seeds or plants in a garden
  • Do a family service project together, like helping an elderly neighbor with house work

Waiting Cards: Language-Boosting Alternatives for Screen Time:  So many times we hand over technology when a child needs to wait.  Learn how to teach kids to wait using waiting cards.

**Keep in mind, the key here is that you are replacing the screen time with quality time with you or another caring adult.  That will help ease the transition!

I’m sure your child will resist the lack of screen time at first, but keep in mind that you are doing her a huge favor by limiting her exposure and creating wonderful new experiences that will open her mind, improve language development, and maybe even expose her to some new hobbies or interests that she never would have found otherwise.  I know this is a hard thing to do, but it is so worth it in the end.  You can do it!

More Resources for Speech-Language Pathologists:

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