We’ve all seen it: a lovely family sitting in a restaurant, with music playing (we’ll say Van Morrison) and food waltzing by. Everyone at the table is oblivious, however, because everyone sees only their device—kids on tablets, parents on smartphones, teens on something cool I haven’t heard of yet. Ah, the ubiquitous smartphone and family of other digital handheld gadgets. Many of us would be hard-pressed to live without them anymore. Most of us are on them constantly to email, use apps, send texts and search the Internet.
While we as adults choose to use our devices however we like, should we give our children the same freedom to dive down the digital rabbit hole, unchecked? New research says no. A recent study from the University of Toronto says every 30 minutes of daily screen use increases a child’s risk of developing speech and language delays by 49 percent for those ages 6 months through 2 years. Specifically, researchers found difficulties with expressive language. While the study appears to show a direct correlation between device use and language difficulties, the authors caution more research needs to be completed.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children younger than 18 months. For children in the 18- to 24-month-old range, the Academy recommends “parents choose high-quality programming and watch with their children to help them understand exactly what they are seeing.” Another study from University College London showed that for every hour infants spent on a device, they lost nearly 16 minutes of sleep. The researchers believe the blue light from a device interrupts natural sleep rhythms. These studies just begin to scratch the surface on long-term effects of device use by young children. However, more and more research demonstrates the benefits of limiting screen time—if not completely avoided—for young children. (Obviously, device use for augmentative and alternative communication is an exception.)
As speech-language pathologists, we are not surprised by the findings of these studies. We know we learn language by exposure, and the birth to 2- or 3-year range is a time of massive advances in language. If everyone at the dinner table only focuses on a device, how can children get the exposure they need to develop their speech and language skills?
On the other hand, I can already hear parents of students saying keeping kids off screens is unreasonable—if not impossible. I use these studies to help convince them the effort is well worth their time, not to mention the bonding experiences they gain with their children. Humanity survived and even thrived for millennia without anything remotely like today’s technology. The Pyramids of Giza, maps of the galaxy and modern-day airplanes were all created without smart-gadgets. Math, reading and science were taught and advanced without the help of devices. As SLPs, we can educate and encourage parents and caregivers to ease off the devices and share reasons why.
Try some of these ideas to help parents replace screen time with talking:
- Of course, we all encourage parents to talk with their children, but they should be talking with them all of the time. Give them ideas about things to point out to their little ones. For example, at the grocery store, talk about things that are green, things that are round, or things with seeds. Encourage them to take their kiddies to the park and count puppies and birds. Even with small babies, talk to them and keep talking.
- Also encourage reading with children. Nothing beats reading for language development and we all enjoy free public libraries, most offering story time. Go further and talk to parents about the benefits of reading to and with them. Again, even with infants, too.
- For older children, suggest parents set up a system where their children earn screen time by reading. For example, for every 30 minutes of reading, the child earns five minutes of screen time. Again, the Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than 18 months, so I use this only for older children.
- List the benefits of puzzles and games—even quick ones. Shape-sorters, sorting boxes, puzzles, matching games and even an abacus are all fun and fast ways for parents to incorporate language into playtime.
I know it may seem daunting to convince parents to go screen-free with their children, but more and more research shows we should try. How do you encourage parents to replace device time with talking time, especially for babies and young children?
Katie Conn Suggs, MS, CCC-SLP, serves as a lead speech-language pathologist in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, North Carolina. She also founded a private practice, The Speech Carrot. firstname.lastname@example.org