A recent study presented at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco revealed that too much time spent on a handheld device may delay the development of children’s expressive speech. For many childcare providers including parents, passing the smartphone or tablet to a child has practically become second nature. New research indicates that our willingness to utilize smart devices solely as a distraction or for entertainment has increased in recent years, and a marked decline in interpersonal communication and interactions have resulted.
Knowing the dangers of a developing brain being exposed to multiple forms of vivid, two-dimensional images and videos flashing erratically, many childcare professionals work diligently to reduce the amount of screen time that their charges are exposed to. This most recent research indicates that though screen time can indeed slow speech development when the child is left alone with the device, there is some evidence to show that the childcare provider interacting with the child and utilizing the device as a learning tool actually has a positive effect on that child’s communication and development.
To develop these conclusions, Catherine Birken, a pediatrician, and scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, relied on well-child visits, regular checkups that track a child’s growth, health and overall development. From 2011 to 2015 Dr. Birken asked the childcare providers how much time their children spent each day with hand-held screens like smartphones, tablets, and electronic games. Birken and her team then assessed each child with the Infant-Toddler Checklist – a screening tool that looks for signs of delayed communication development. “It isn’t a definitive diagnosis,” Birken said, but it does help determine whether a child is at-risk and needs to be assessed for further evaluation.
Birken’s team examined nearly nine hundred toddlers, aged six to twenty-four months, for the study. By the time they reached their eighteen-month checkups, twenty percent of the children used mobile devices for about twenty-eight minutes every day. The evidence showed that children who spent more time with handheld screens were more likely to show indications of a delay in expressive speech – how children use their sounds and words, and how they put sentences together to communicate. Communication is one of the developmental cornerstones for children, and negatively impacting its growth could be detrimental to their future success.
“When kids can’t express themselves they get really frustrated,” said Jenny Radesky, a University of Michigan developmental pediatrician. “They are more likely to act out more or to use their bodies to try to communicate or use attention-seeking behaviors. Early language delays have been linked to later academic problems or not finishing high school,” Radesky said. But Radesky, who co-authored the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent guidelines for children’s media use, said the problem lies less with mobile devices, and more with how we use them.
“Kids can start to learn language from media, if they’re watching with [someone] who then uses the media as a teaching tool,” Radesky said. “Help the child apply it to the rest of the world around them – the way [you] often do with a book.” Childcare providers can effectively use screen time as an educational tool if they are purposefully engaged, aware, and appropriately research the content that they plan to share with the child.
Demonizing technology isn’t necessarily the answer, we want to support children as they grow in this rapidly developing world – as an adult, being tech-savvy is no longer just an option, it’s a necessity. The new evidence revealed in this study shows that when and how that exposure occurs is central to the healthy development of our kids. Though the tools may change as technology grows faster than our ability to track its impact, true development of expression and deeper communication happens as a result of interpersonal interaction: in-person, tangible, engaged connection will always be the most effective platform for teaching our children.