Originally published by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) on The ASHA Leader Blog, August 24, 2017
Read on The ASHA Leader Blog site

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 missing it, however, because everyone is on their smart-device (errrr….tablet/phone/something-cool-I-haven’t-thought-of-yet).

Ah, the ubiquitous smart phone, and its family of other smart-gadgets. Many of us would be hard-pressed to live without them anymore. Email, apps, even random internet searches are routine pieces of daily life. Whether for functioning or for fun, devices have increasingly become part (some would argue necessity) of our society and culture.

While we as adults can certainly choose to use our devices however we like, should children be given the same choice? New research says no.

A recent study from the University of Toronto found that for every 30 minutes of daily screen use, a child’s risk of developing speech and language delays increases by 49%. Specifically, researchers found difficulties with expressive language or the ability to verbally communicate words, thoughts, and ideas with others. While the study appears to show a relationship between devices and language difficulties, the authors caution that more research needs to be completed.

As a speech-language pathologist, I am not at all surprised by the findings of this study. We learn language by exposure, and the birth to two or three-year age-range is a time of massive advances in language. If everyone is on a device, are children really getting the exposure they need to develop their speech and language skills? The fear is they are not.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children younger than 18 months. For children in the 18-24-month-old range, the Academy recommends “parents choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand exactly what they are seeing.” More and more research is showing screen time should be limited—if not completely avoided for young children.

For those of you swearing that it is unreasonable to keep children off devices, I urge you to remember a few things. For millennia, we did not have anything remotely like today’s technology and did just fine. The Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, and modern-day airplanes were all built without smart-gadgets. Even though they seem to be an essential part of life, I assure you they are not.

Furthermore, we have no idea of the long-term effects of smart phone-tablet-gadget use. Another study from University College London showed that for every hour infants spent on a device, 16 minutes of sleep were lost. The theory here is the blue light from devices interrupts natural sleep rhythms. As you can see, we are just beginning to scratch the surface of the effects of device use.

As a parent or caregiver, what do you do? How do you ensure adequate language development and not use a device?

  • For starters, talk to your children. Seriously, talk to them about everything. Take them to the grocery store and talk about things that are green. Take them to a ballgame and talk about the players. Go to the park and count puppies and birds. Even with small babies, talk to them and keep talking.
  • Read with your children. The public library is free, and nothing beats reading for language development. However, do not just hand the book to your children. Read with them. Again, do this with infants too.
  • For older children, have them earn screen time by reading. For example, for every 30 minutes of reading the child gets 5 minutes of screen time. Again, the Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than 18 months, so this is for older children only.
  • Play with puzzles and games. Shape sorters, sorting boxes, puzzles, and even the abacus are great learning tools.

I know it may seem strange (or daunting) to make your children go screen free, but more and more research is showing this is the ideal. Do you really want to put your child at increased risk of having a language delay simply because of smart technology use? Only you can answer that.

The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/05/04/tablets-smartphones-damage-toddlers-speech-development/

PBS: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/toddlers-screen-time-linked-slower-speech-development-study-finds/