Your baby is bawling while you are swamped with household chores. What do you do? Give him your phone or iPad? That might not be a smart solution.
A study, being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, has revealed some striking findings.
The study found 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.
“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.”
In the study, which involved nearly 900 children, parents reported the amount of time their children spent using screens in minutes per day at age 18 months.
Researchers then used an infant toddler checklist, a validated screening tool, to assess the children’s language development also at 18 months.
They looked at a range of things, including whether the child uses sounds or words to get attention or help and puts words together, and how many words the child uses.
Twenty percent of the children spent an average of 28 minutes a day using screens, the study found. Every 30-minute increase in daily screen time was linked to a 49% increased risk of what the researchers call expressive speech delay, which is using sounds and words.
The study did not find any link between use of a handheld device and other areas of communication, such as gestures, body language and social interaction.
‘We need more definitive research’
Birken, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, stressed that while her study shows there appears to be a relationship between handheld device use and communication delays in young children, much more research is needed to determine if the device use is actually causing the speech delay.
Further research also needs to look into what content the young children are reviewing and whether they are using devices with a parent and/or caregiver present, she said.
“I think in order to actually develop the evidence to inform parents and clinicians about what to recommend, we need more definitive research,” Birken said. “You need trials. You need good evidence, at least longitudinal studies, but this, at least, this finding is identifying an association and it does support the current recommendation” from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
That group recommends no screens at all, other than video-chatting with family, for children younger than 18 months. The noise and activity of a screen can be distracting for a small child and can cause a disconnect between them and their parents, pediatricians have said.
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.
Nearly 40% of children under age 2 have used a mobile device, an increase from just 10% in 2011, according to a 2013 study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization which is focused on helping children, parents and educators navigate the world of media and technology. Those numbers are likely to be even higher today as smartphones have only grown in popularity.
“This is an important study in highlighting some of the potential risks associated with media use, and specifically handheld mobile devices,” said Michael Robb, research director for Common Sense Media. “What’s driving the effect is very important. The negative effects may be due to screen time replacing parent-child interaction (playing, reading, talking, singing, etc.) which are critical for healthy development,” said Robb via email.
Screens are ‘everywhere’
Michelle MacRoy-Higgins and Carlyn Kolker are co-authors of the just released “Time to Talk: What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Speech and Language Development,” which explores 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 may be the case that the more young children are engaged in screen time, then the less time they have to engage with caretakers, parents and siblings, said MacRoy-Higgins, who is also an associate professor in the department of speech-language pathology and audiology at Hunter College.
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.”