Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are growing up with increased access to technology. Let’s be honest, there are 3 year olds who can navigate an iPad better than I can! It’s common for parents to feel proud about how technologically advanced their child is. Or, to brag about how an app helped teach their child a basic concept (e.g., colors or shapes). Other parents might wonder if technology can help their child learn and which educational apps are best. But, what are the effects of all of this screen time?
I want to be clear. While technology can serve as a learning tool, interaction is fundamental. You cannot expect your child to learn as much from technology as they could from an in-person interaction. Furthermore, research explains negative impacts of screen time on children. In this article, I will explain the effects of screen time on the language development of young children, 0 to 5 years. I will also discuss how parents can identify a screen time balance for their children in a world of evolving technology.
What is Screen Time?
First off, let’s define the term. “Screen time” refers to any time that your child spends with a screen in front of their face. This includes: smart phones, tablets (e.g., iPad or Kindle), laptops, computers, television (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube), DVD players, hand-held gaming devices (e.g., Nintendo), movie theaters, and any screen with moving pictures. Regardless of whether or not the content is educational, screen time is screen time. The effects can be significant to your child’s overall development.
What are the Facts?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in 1970, children started to regularly watch TV by 4 years of age. Today, children begin to interact with technology as early as 4 months of age. On average, children under 2 years of age spend two hours per day using technology. So, what’s the big deal? Research shows limited educational benefit of screen time for children under 2 years of age. The AAP advises screen time guidelines for children, 0 to 5 years old:
- Children 0 to 18 months should not engage in screen time. This excludes interactive video calls supported by adults (e.g., FaceTime or Zoom).
- Children 18 to 24 months may engage in select, high-quality, interactive programs (e.g., Sesame Street).
- Children 2 to 5 years, should engage in no more than one hour of select, high-quality, interactive programs (e.g., PBS).
***Note: For ages 18 months to 5 years, adult supervised viewing is recommended. This suggests that the child and parent share and talk about what they are watching. In doing so, parents can support their child’s interpretation and understanding of the content.
Can Screen Time Cause Language Delays?
Research published multiple studies about the negative effects of screen time on language development. One study found that children who watched more than two hours of TV before 12 months of age were six times more likely to have a language delay (Chonchaiya, W., and Pruksananonda, C., 2008). Another study found that by 18 months of age, 20% of children had a screen time average of 28 minutes daily (Birken, C., 2017). For every 30 minute increase in screen time, there was a 49% increased chance of expressive language delay.
Ultimately, research shows us that increased screen time places young children at high risk for language delay. This includes: late talking or difficulty developing language and literacy skills. A child’s first years of life are crucial to language development. This is a period of time when a child’s brain is most receptive to language. When the child ages, it becomes more difficult for them to develop new language skills.
Therefore, every moment a child spends in front of a screen means less time learning from an in-person interaction. Screen time does not replace in-person interactions for teaching verbal and non-verbal language and communication.
What if My Child Already Has a Language Delay?
There is no way to determine if too much screen time caused your child’s language delay. A combination of factors is most likely the cause. Therefore, parents should not feel guilty or blame themselves for their child’s language delay. However, parents should keep in mind that continued overuse may contribute to further delay. It may also prevent or slow improvement. When a child demonstrates difficulty using language, they need every opportunity to hear words spoken and to practice using language.
Other Effects of Screen Time on a Young Child’s Development
Across the first years of a child’s life, their cognitive abilities are increasing at a rapid rate. In part, due to natural development. In part, due to environment (e.g., playing with caregivers, or sharing with peers). When a child is exposed to excessive screen time, natural and environmental factors are limited. Therefore, over exposure to screen time may also result in difficulty across the following areas:
- Social-emotional development
- Coping skills or the ability to emotionally self-regulate
- Caregiver-to-child relationships
- Healthy sleep habits
Let’s Be Real
We understand that children don’t learn best from screens. We also know that too much screen time can have a negative impact on a child’s development. What does that mean for your child’s screen time? It’s common for parents to admit that using screen time while the parent takes a break or needs to get something done occurs in their home. While screen time does not promote your child’s development, occasional use can help families get through a busy day. Just remember, everything in moderation. When possible, support your child’s screen time by engaging them in the technology. Try to use technology as a tool to engage your child in language and literacy supported interactions.
For infants, screen time is not recommended. For children 2 to 5 years old, limit screen time to one hour per day of supported, high-quality programming. Preferably parents should co-view content with their children. This helps children understand content and relate it back to their surrounding world. Parents should avoid fast-paced programs or apps with distracting content. Avoid violent content. When devices or TVs are not in use, turn them off. Bedrooms, mealtimes, and playtime should remain screen free. This goes for children and their parents. Avoid use of screens one hour prior to bedtime and remove them from the bedroom at bedtime. Parents should avoid using screen time to calm their child in order to support a child’s ability to self-soothe and regulate. Contact your child’s pediatrician for additional information.
What Can I do with My Child Instead of Screen Time?
Creating healthy habits and behaviors is crucial to eliminating negative effects of screen time for families. Parents should recognize how their own technology habits provide example to their children. When parents learn to mediate use and balance between screen time and other activities, healthy habits evolve. Here is a list of positive activities to engage your young child in instead of screen time:
- Engage in conversation
- Sing songs
- Read books
- Make a craft
- Play with your child’s favorite toy
- Play a board game
- Host a play date
- Go to the park
- Play outside
- Go for a walk
- Go for a drive and talk about what you see along the way
- Teach your child a new skill
- Practice a sport
- Ride bicycle
- Cook together
- Plant seeds for flowers or a garden
- Do a family service project
American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media. Media and Young Minds. Pediatrics.
Chonchaiya et. al. Television Viewing Associates with Delayed Language Development. National Library of Medicine. 2008.
Birken, C. Handheld Screen Time Use Associated with Language Delay in Infants. The ASHA Leader.