Anyone raising a child today has likely fretted about screen time and wondered about the impact of devices on our kids. Does the technology affect their brains? Does it limit their social development? Could it harm them emotionally? Could it delay when they start talking?
I had never thought about that last question until a new study, released Thursday and being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, 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.
– Kelly Wallace
Photo Source: Flickr Images