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Screen Time, and the Impact on Speech and Language Development

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

It's almost 2022, and screens are being used by children more than ever! They can be a great way to learn, communicate, and pass the time. However, screens have a broader impact on children learning to speak or people with speech or language delays or disorders.

As a further challenge, the measures to stay safe from Covid-19 have increased children's screen use. In addition, public health measures introduced at-home virtual learning, cancelled extracurricular activities, placed restrictions on socializing and playdates, and increased the need for "quiet time" for caregivers.

The way parents and caregivers expose children to screens matters, and I want to share with you the impacts screen time can have and my recommendations on how to introduce screen time in the best way possible for your children, especially post-pandemic.

The impacts

A Canadian study of just under 1000 children between 6 and 24 months old found a correlation between exposure to handheld screens and a delay in language skills. It also found that for every 30-minute increase of daily screen time, the child's risk of experiencing a language delay increased by almost 50%.

In a separate study, it was reported by parents of children under 24 months that toddlers who spent more time watching videos expressed fewer words. The same study found that infants from 8 to 16 months old said an average of 6-8 fewer words daily for each additional hour of exposure to videos.

Both of these studies indicate that screen time has an impact on the speech and language development of infants and toddlers.

Monitoring screen time

So, how can caregivers best monitor the effect and impact that screen time has on their children? David Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, suggests caregivers regularly reflect on whether your child is engaging in screen time in a healthy way.

Some questions caregivers can ask are:

· Is the child getting enough sleep?

· Is the child doing any daily exercise?

· Is the child participating in quality family time?

· Is the child keeping in touch with their friends?

· Is the child engaging in their schoolwork?

· Is the child completing their homework assignments?

· Is the child spending time doing the hobbies/extracurricular activities that matter to them?

If the majority of those questions are answered with a yes, some additional screen time will probably not have a significant negative impact on their healthy development. However, if your school-aged children spend copious amounts of time secluded in their rooms or endless hours scrolling through social media, those can be signs of depression. In those cases, additional screen time will not be contributing to their wellness, and other interventions may be required.

Note: If you are concerned that your child is showing signs of depression, seek care from your physician as soon as possible.

For younger children, a lot of the above questions won't apply, but evaluating their use of screens is also important. Some questions that caregivers of very young children can ask themselves are:

- Does the child have any speech delays?

- Is the child given a screen to soothe them when their behaviour escalates?

- Does the child become extremely upset when the screens are taken away?

- Does the child engage with others, even when they have the screen?

If the answer was yes to any of those questions, caregivers might want to reduce the amount of time their child has access to those devices. Prioritizing speech and language development between ages six months and two years is incredibly important and will have long-term benefits for your child.

Passive Vs. Active screen time

In a society enveloped in a global health crisis, some aspects of life cannot be removed from a screen. Knowing the difference between passive and active screen time can help caregivers determine how children are using screen time without putting a hard limit on a certain number of hours.

Passive screen time is absent-minded. It can be things like watching a movie, browsing social media, or streaming videos on youtube.

Active screen time engages the mind. It usually has aspects of learning, thinking, creating, or socializing. Active screen time can be things like a documentary about a subject of interest, video-chatting with a friend, or playing a game that involves building or developing (like Minecraft).

Active screen time, in most cases, is healthy screen time and should take up more hourly screen time than passive on any given day. So, even if public health measures mean your child is in front of a screen all day for school, it doesn't mean that that extended amount of screen time was working against their development.

IMPORTANT note: This blog article and research outlined in it, does not pertain to children and adults who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices to communicate with others. For more information related to AAC and the benefits of it's use, please see:

Tips and recommendations

If you're becoming concerned about the imbalance of passive and active screen time your child is engaging in, there are a few things you can do to re-balance the situation.

· Encourage your child to engage in some screen-free time by inviting them to do something low-tech they love like painting, helping you cook dinner, playing outside, or setting up a playdate with a friend (restrictions allowing)

· Turn passive screen time into active screen time by engaging their thought process and finding teachable moments. For example, are they watching a movie? Ask them why they think a character did a particular behavior, what they think might happen next, and why.

· Model healthy screen time yourself – know when to put your own phone down and engage in other activities.

· Avoid eating your meals in front of the TV, and implement a no-phones rule at the table. Enabling family connection and quality time while sharing a meal means not spending time passively in front of a screen.

If you would like more information, tips, and recommendations about screen time and your children, reach out to your Speech-Language Pathologist.

Simon Says Speech Inc. In Edmonton, Alberta offers assessment, consultation, and speech and language therapy to children 0-18 years old.


Screen Time and Your Child
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