Screen time can delay language development

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Children learn from adults; this also applies to language development. An Australian research team warns that toddlers who spend a long time in front of a screen miss out on many important moments of conversation.

This is because during the time they spend on smartphones, tablets, and game consoles, they hear fewer words from their parents and other adults, interact less with them, and perceive fewer conversational sequences.

The resulting language development can be delayed, as the group explains in the journal “JAMA Pediatrics”. According to the article, studies have repeatedly shown how important it is for a child’s language acquisition and socio-emotional development to be spoken to and interacted with a lot in the home environment. In many cases, however, they have focused on parents’ screen time and its consequences.

Decline in parent-child conversations
The group led by Mary Brushe from the University of Adelaide’s School of Public Health has now included data from 220 families collected every six months from January 2018 to December 2021 using speech recognition technology. The screen time and home language environment of 12 to 36-month-old children were recorded on an average 16-hour day.

The analysis showed that each increase in screen time was associated with a decrease in parent-child conversations. The children heard fewer words from the adults in their household, spoke less of themselves, and interacted less frequently in conversations. The largest decreases per minute of screen time were observed at 36 months of age.

172 minutes per day in front of screens
According to the study, even in families that adhere to the current World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on screen time – one hour per day for three-year-olds – children can miss out on around 400 adult words per day. However, it is estimated that the average screen time in most families is much higher.

If three-year-olds – as in the study – sit in front of screens for an average of around 172 minutes a day, they miss an average of more than 1,000 words addressed to them by adults in their environment, as the researchers explain. However, whether children who sit in front of screens for particularly long periods actually have a smaller vocabulary and poorer language skills was not investigated.

Talking is a “simple and uncomplicated activity”
“It is important for children’s language development in the early years to grow up in a linguistically rich home environment,” says the research team. Among other things, this influences school readiness and success throughout the rest of the educational process.

“Talking to children seems to be a simple and straightforward activity,” the study also states. In the busy lives of families, however, this is often not so easy. It is unrealistic for families to stop engaging young children with their smartphones or tablets completely. “Instead, programs and policies could focus on encouraging families to use screen time as an opportunity to interact with their child,” the researchers say.

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