Smartphones, Children and Screen Time

Smartphones have become an everyday part of our lives in a relatively short amount of time. We can order a pizza, pay a bill, buy movie tickets or get driving directions in just a few minutes. But what about kids?  The impact of the use of these devices has been, until now, unknown. A new study has just been released which reveals that children might experience a delay in their speech development if they use handheld screens between the ages of six months and two years.

The study, which was shared at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meetings, reports that

“the more time children between the ages of six months and two years spent using handheld screens such as smartphones, tablets and electronic games, the more likely they were to experience speech delays”

Screen Time Guidelines

Screen time is not a new concern. There have been guidelines in place from the American Academy of Pediatrics for some time. Concerned about the connection between a child and their parents, as well as the noise and activity, the group recommends that any child younger than 18 months have no screen time at all, other than the occasional video-chat with grandma and grandpa.

The group, however, has a new recommendation for kids between the ages of 18-24 months.

“For kids between the ages of 18 to 24 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics moved away last year from recommending a total screen ban for this age group. Instead, it recommends parents choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what exactly they are seeing.”

What does this all mean?

The study looked at almost 900 18 month old children. Parents reported how many minutes a day their children used a device with a screen. Researchers then assessed the children’s language development by using a screening tool. While the researchers did find a link between screen time and language development, other kinds of communication, like gestures, body language and social interaction, were not found to be impacted.

But because this is the first study of its kind, the researchers admit that more research needs to be done.

“I believe it’s the first study to examine mobile media device and communication delay in children,” said Dr. Catherine Birken, the study’s senior investigator and a pediatrician and scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario. “It’s the first time that we’ve sort of shone a light on this potential issue, but I think the results need to be tempered (because) it’s really a first look.”

What do we know about language development?

Two people who were not surprised by the findings of the study are Michelle MacRoy-Higgins and Carlyn Kolker, who wrote the book “Time to Talk: What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Speech and Language Development. In their book, they explore how speech develops in babies and young children.

MacRoy-Higgins, who has worked with hundreds of infants, toddlers and young children as a speech-language therapist, said she was not at all surprised by the findings.

“We do know that young kids learn language best through interaction and engagement with other people, and we also know that children who hear less language in their homes have lower vocabularies.”

It stands to reason that the more time children are engaged with other people, whether it is parents, other family members, or caretakers they are more likely to develop language skills because of the interaction.

And while this study is focused on children up to 24 months, MacRoy-Higgins states the implications for the lack of language development extend far beyond into elementary school.

“The first two years are incredibly important for children and their early foundation of language is important for academic success, she said. “Delays can be associated with difficulties learning to read and to write in elementary school so these early years, these first two years, the language influence that kids get is really very, very important and we want our kids to stay on track with their language development, because if they’re not, they’re really at risk for having some difficulties.”

The co-authors offer some helpful advice to parents that want to help develop their child’s language.

“The best way to teach them language is by interacting with them, talking with them, playing with them, using different vocabulary, pointing things out to them and telling them stories.”

The verdict on SmartPhones?

Handheld devices like smartphones and tablets are an integral part of our everyday lives and they are not going away anytime soon. They may even be helpful for a parent that is waiting in a grocery store line to hand over a device to help manage a toddler on the verge of a meltdown, but we need to realize that while it is helpful to the parent, the screen time will not be helpful to your child.

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