"Screen time" is a term that I definitely didn't grow up hearing all the time. It's only been recently that researchers have become concerned about the effects of screen time on development, specifically language development. For that reason, we don't have a ton of research on it yet, which means we don't have the highest quality of research.
However, the studies we do have are showing that yes, screen time negatively impacts language development.
I've gone into detail on each study below, but if you want the gist, here's what you'll want to know. There is one research study that directly looked at the impact of handheld devices on language development, and that is the study we use when we say that screen time negatively affects language development. It found a 49% increased risk of language delay for every 30-minute increase in screen time. However, this study was not of the highest quality, since the data collection method was a parent survey, and there was no control group. Additionally, this study did not collect data after the children were 2 years old, so we don't know if any of those late talkers caught up.
Other research can give us more pieces to the puzzle, including the understanding that young children learn through live human interactions and almost not at all through video or audio. This is important because there are plenty of YouTube videos or apps that claim to help with language development, and while we can't say if these specifically hurt language development, we can say that they are most likely not helping at all. Another important point is that there might be a difference between handheld devices and television.
So what does the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend? No screen time before 18-24 months, and up to 1 hour of high-quality screen time for 2-5 year-olds. FaceTime is exempt from these time limits, based on a few other studies.
I know this can seem hard to stick to, so here are some of my recommendations for limiting screen time:
Read a book! I know some children can seem uninterested in books, especially if they are particularly attached to screens already. However, the love of books and reading is such a foundational skill to future literacy, and continuing to read is the best way to help children like it.
Music! Sing a song with your child or turn on some music for dancing.
Go outside! There is rarely a need to entertain when a child is outside. There are also benefits to outside time for children who struggle with attention.
Allow for independent play! We have this idea that we constantly need to make sure our children are entertained. However, independent play is vital. If you need to get something done, try handing your child a toy instead of an iPad.
Limit your own screen time! When children see us enthralled with our devices, it's no wonder they want them. Set your own screen time limits and stick to them as much as possible.
In my own experience (and remember that one study only looked at handheld devices), TV is a better choice than a tablet or phone. This just has to do with how much of the outside world the child is tuning out. So if you're at your whit's end, try turning on a movie for a few minutes and talking through it instead of handing over your phone.
As a final note, remember that some children had language impairments before screen time was a concern. If your child has language delays, please don't waste time feeling guilty about what you did or did not do. Just do your best to give your child what they need at this time.
Now, if that's not enough and you want a deeper look into each of the studies, read on! If this doesn't interest you, you've read all of the good stuff above!
First, this study surveyed the parents of 894 children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. They found that the average handheld screen time was 28 minutes at 18 months, and for every 30-minute increase in screentime, there was a 49% increased risk of expressive language delay.
A few limitations to this study: First, the methodology (surveying parents) is obviously not ideal, but it would be hard to gather this much information for this many children using a controlled, direct experiment. Second, this study only looked at handheld devices. This is not a limitation on the study but rather a caution to parents to not assume these results apply to TV. Last, this study did not continue to survey parents beyond 2 years. In the case of all late talkers, there is a proportion of children that will naturally catch up by school age. We have no way of knowing if delayed language possibly caused by screen time would follow a similar pattern.
Next, we have this study that is quite a bit older. They again surveyed the parents of 1,008 children ages 2 to 24 months. This survey only included DVD/ TV viewing. They found that for babies between 8-16 months, for each hour of DVD viewing, there was a decrease in their language score. However, there was no correlation for toddlers between 17-24 months.
Again, this study was a survey. Also, the lack of correlation in the older age group leads us to conclude that there are still gaps in this research. This study did not go past 2 years of age either.
I read this study in grad school, and it was so interesting that it's stuck with me. The researchers were looking at how children learn the sounds in their native language. It is known that infants are born with the ability to learn any sound pattern for any language. Somewhere between 6 and 12 months, infants lose this ability. This study found that for a group of children who were exposed to about 5 hours of Mandarin between 9 and 10 months, they preserved their ability to detect speech sounds in the targeted language. However, if those children were exposed to the same instruction via TV or audio, there was no effect. In other words, these children only learned language patterns from direct human interaction. Those who were exposed to video or audio learned no more than the control group, who received no instruction at all.
This is the first study in this group that included direct experimentation and a control group. It is also quite old (2003), and the sample size was small (32 infants in each experiment), so we take these results with a grain of salt.
This study examined again if there is a difference between how children learn from human interaction vs. a television program. The researchers chose a group of new words to teach children between 15-24 months. They split the children into groups: 1) children were taught the words through a live, human interaction while the child was paying attention; 2) children were taught through live, human interaction when they were not paying attention; 3) children were taught through an adult presenting on a television; 4) children were taught the same group of words through a Teletubbies clip. You shouldn't be surprised by now to learn that the toddlers in group 1 learned the words the best. However, one interesting note from this study is that age mattered for the television program group. The toddlers over 21 months in group 4 were more successful.
Again, we find a small sample size in this study (48 participants). And again, the study did not look at children over 2 years old.
Okay, this is the last one, I promise. Unfortunately, I could only access the abstract for this study. Much like the previous one, this study researched whether young children could learn words from a video. However, this study was with older children (30-42 months old) and looked at specifically learning verbs (action words). Their 3 groups were: 1) Learning from video with an adult present to offer live interaction, 2) video only, 3) video, but with the adult aid on the screen. Again, they found that children only learned with an adult present.
Since I couldn't get the full text, it's really hard to say what the limitations to this study were. However, this sample size was bigger (96 children), and it's the only study here that looked at children over 2 years old.
Again, remember that this is all pretty new research, and none of this is as high quality as we have on many other subjects. But I think it's safe to say that if you are able to offer your child personal interaction, that will be the greatest benefit to them.
As always, I'm here to support you! Send me a message or leave a comment if you ever have a question!
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, May 4). Handheld screen time linked with speech delays in young children: New research being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting suggests the more time children under 2 years old spend playing with smartphones, tablets and other handheld screens, the more likely they are to begin talking later. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 25, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170504083141.htm
Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F., & Liu, H. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(15), 9096-9101. doi:10.1073/pnas.1532872100
Marina Krcmar, Bernard Grela & Kirsten Lin (2007) Can Toddlers Learn Vocabulary from Television? An Experimental Approach, Media Psychology, 10:1, 41-63, DOI: 10.1080/15213260701300931
Myers, L. J., Lewitt, R. B., Gallo, R. E., & Maselli, N. M. (2016). Baby FaceTime: Can toddlers learn from online video chat? Developmental Science, 20(4). doi:10.1111/desc.12430
Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language. Child Development, 85(3), 956-970. doi:10.1111/cdev.12166
Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Parish-Morris, J., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2009). Live Action: Can Young Children Learn Verbs From Video? Child Development, 80(5), 1360-1375. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01338.x
Zimmerman, F. J., Christakis, D. A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2007). Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151(4), 364-368. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.04.071