Monday 17 August 2020

Is Screen Time the Biggest Cause of Speech and Language Delay?

Early language skills are so important and research studies have shown how language ability at two years of age predicts later life outcomes. You may wonder how this is possible but we know that the first two years of a child's life is extremely important. Over the course of the first two years, the brain grows rapidly, more rapidly than at any other stage of life. In the first year it doubles in size and by the age of two, it is 85% of adult size. During this time, a child's brain is building structural and functional connections, wiring up the neural networks as the child experiences new things and gains new skills and abilities. Screens can impact on this early development, often in a negative way. In this article I describe the ways screen time can affect speech and language development.

Young children do not learn language from a screen

Children learn language in context through social interactions with real people. From the moment they are born, babies are beginning to learn about the world around them. They watch the people around them interacting with each other and with them. Through observation and practise, they learn how language works; and there is a lot to learn. Not only do children need to learn words, they also need to learn how to put these words together to form sentences. They need to learn about the rules of social interaction. They need to learn to interpret body language, and a whole host of other things.

Parents can help their babies to learn language in many ways. You can read more about them here. Daily activities such as going to the park, eating dinner, playing with toy cars or having a bath, provide lots of opportunities for learning new vocabulary and social interaction skills. While your child may pick up some vocabulary from a screen, they will not learn social interaction skills this way. Furthermore, research has shown that the more complex aspects of language, such as grammar and phonetics, are not acquired from screen exposure.

Screens reduce social interaction

One of the main disadvantages of screen time is that they reduce social interaction. When a child is sitting in front of a screen they are not interacting with the people around them. They are not learning the skills they need to be able to communicate with others. They do not learn how to interact, play or make friends. 

It is not only the children who are not interacting but the parents too. When a parent stares at a screen, they are ignoring their children. They become oblivious to the world around them and this not only has an impact on their child's speech and language development, it can be dangerous! An increase in the number of injuries to children under five has been linked to the increased use of handheld devices.

Screens create background noise

Babies and young children are not able to differentiate between foreground and background noise. Therefore, having a screen on in the background will provide background noise that may hinder your child's ability to tune in to what you are saying. Not only will this affect their ability to learn language and how it works, it may make it harder for them to hear individual speech sounds, which could lead to speech sound difficulties.

Screens change brain development

In her book, The Big Disconnect, Catherine Steiner-Adair says that research is starting to suggest 'that the process of tapping a screen or keypad and engaging with the screen activity may itself be rerouting brain development in ways that eliminate development of other neural connections your child needs to develop reading, writing and higher-level thinking.' So, not only will screen time affect spoken language skills, it may negatively impact their reading and writing ability too.

Screens reduce real life experiences

Children learn language, as well as other skills, in context when they are taking part in real life experiences. Time spent in front of a screen takes away from the time spent doing other things. Watching TV is such a passive activity, normally involving sitting and staring at the screen while doing nothing else. Your child is not practising many skills in this instance. They are not using their body to improve physical skills, they are probably not having to think very much and they almost certainly don't have to talk.
Children may learn some skills from screens but, as Steiner-Adair points out, 'the issue is what they are NOT learning.' Screen time has not only reduced social interaction, it has reduced free play and physical play too. Things which are crucial for healthy child development.

Is screen time the biggest cause of early language delay?

In recent years, the number of children with speech and language delay has been increasing. Screen time has also increased. We know that the quantity of screen time can have a negative impact on speech and language development, so much so that it can lead to speech and language delay. It is not the only cause but, as you can see, it can be a significant contributor. That is why it is important to limit screen exposure for young children. 

As a parent of four young children, I know the power of screen time. I know how attractive it is  both to children and to parents who want some time out! However, the World Health Organisation recommends no screen time for children under 24 months and up to one hour of screen time for 2-5 year olds. Whether it's Baby Einstein or some other programme targeted at little ones, remember, they will not be benefiting your baby's development. In fact, research carried out at the University of Washington found that babies who watched "baby videos", such as Baby Einstein, had a smaller vocabulary than those babies who did not. 

Finally, so-called "baby videos/programmes" tend to have lots of disembodied voice-overs while abstract images are shown on the screen. However, it is crucial for a baby or young child to see a person's face when they are speaking. This will help them to segment sounds and work out where one word ends and another word starts. Without this knowledge, what they hear is just one endless stream of sound with no meaning attached to it. 

So, instead of putting your baby in front of the screen, make time to interact with them one to one. Make sure they can see your face when you are speaking to them and give them your full attention. Also, remember to turn off or reduce any background noise so that they can focus on what you are saying. There is nothing your baby needs more than you and interacting with you is the best way to boost their speech and language development.


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