New Research: Does Screen Time Cause Delayed Development in Toddlers?

If you have a baby or toddler, you’ve probably given some thought to how much screen time they should get. Now, a new study has revealed significant findings about screen time and how it affects young children’s development, especially their speech and language.

Let’s take a look at the study’s results and what they mean for you as a parent. You’ll also get tips for limiting your child’s screen time habit. Plus, learn how to tell if your child might need help with their speech and language development.

What did the study measure?

This study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, assessed the development of 7,097 babies born in Japan. Pregnant women were recruited for this study between 2013 and 2017, and researchers collected data about their children’s development and screen time use. The researchers wanted to see if there is a correlation between screen time use and childhood developmental delays. 

Screen time for this study included watching TV; using cell phones, tablets, or other devices; and playing video games.

The mothers were asked how much daily screen time their baby had at 1 year of age. Once the kids were 2 and 4 years old, the parents completed an “Ages & Stages Questionnaire” to assess their child’s development. This questionnaire looked at communication skills, such as the child’s ability to use phrases or identify pictures based on vocabulary words. 

What did the study find?

This research showed that greater amounts of screen time were associated with a higher likelihood of developmental delays in communication. Take a look at the numbers:

  • With up to 2 hours of daily screen time use at age 1, children were 61% more likely to have communication delays at age 2

  • With 2 to 4 hours of daily screen time at age 1, 2-year-olds were twice as likely to have a communication delay

  • With more than 4 hours of daily screen time, 2-year-olds were five times more likely to have a communication delay 

The study also looked at other areas of development such as fine motor skills and social skills. Kids who watched at least one hour of screen time at age 1 had a higher likelihood of missing milestones at 2 years old. However, by age 4, screen time use did not appear to affect the children’s development in those areas.

Can children learn language from TV or other screens?

Screens are a part of everyday life. And when you have a young child, using screens can be convenient–and tempting! That’s especially true when the apps or shows appear to be educational.

There are some positives to using technology. But it’s important to know that learning words on a screen, and in relation to what’s on a screen, is different from learning words from people during everyday routines.

The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that 15-month-olds can learn words from screens, such as how to label various items. However, they may not be able to easily apply those words to the same items in the real world. So if a child learns the word cup when shown a picture of a cup on a tablet app, they may not be able to label their own cup at home, or say the word “cup” to ask for it.

Learning words on a screen is different from learning words from people during everyday routines.

Unfortunately, the more time your child spends sitting passively in front of a screen, the less time they spend interacting with the world around them. Think about taking a walk around the neighborhood. If your child is in their stroller watching their favorite show on a tablet, they're missing an opportunity to interact with you, ask questions, point to objects, learn new vocabulary words, and more. All of these activities build speech and language skills.

How does screen time affect kids?

The negative effects of passive screen time on language development have been well documented by researchers.

Screen time can affect children's speech. One study surveyed the effects of media exposure on over 1,000 toddlers younger than 2 years old. They found a strong link between media consumption and language development: The more videos that toddlers watched, the fewer words they knew or said. In fact, for each additional hour of videos that young children watched, they said on average six to eight fewer words--which adds up over time!

The more videos that toddlers watched, the fewer words they knew or said.

Another study showed particularly harmful effects of passive screen time. Researchers found that before a child's first birthday, those who watched more than two hours of TV a day were six times more likely to develop a language delay.

In addition, this study showed that the more time children spent using handheld screens, such as tablets, phones, and electronic games, the more likely they were to develop a speech delay. Each additional 30 minutes they spent on these devices translated into a 49% increase in the likelihood of delayed speech development.

How to limit screen time for kids

What if your child seems to be addicted to screens? Once habits form, they’re hard to break overnight. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make changes and set limits. Here are a few tips and tricks that can help break the screen time habit.

First and foremost, you’ll want to set some ground rules. You can try setting a maximum number of minutes or hours your child can spend in front of a screen each day. Or, choose a time of day that screen time is allowed (such as an hour before dinner), then screens get turned off.

If your child is old enough to understand, make sure to clearly explain why you’re limiting screen time. You can also use screen time as a reward if your child does their chores, completes their homework, or spends time playing outside.

What’s most important is to replace media time with activities your child loves. This may take a bit of trial and error, but some ideas include:

  • Playing outside or at the park

  • Reading their favorite books

  • Singing songs or nursery rhymes

  • Working on a craft project, like sock puppets or modeling clay

  • Playing with toys or board games

  • Cooking together

  • Going on play dates with friends

How to know if your child is on track with their speech and language

It’s helpful to understand the expected speech and language milestones for each age. Below are the developmental milestones to look for in babies, toddlers, and young children. If your child doesn’t seem to be meeting some of these milestones, it's a good idea to talk with a speech therapist.

Take our speech and language quiz

Another way to determine whether your child is on track is with our self-screener. With this easy online quiz, you’ll answer questions about speech and language tailored to your child’s age. Your results will let you know whether you should speak with a speech therapist. You can then click to schedule a free consultation with one of Expressable’s licensed speech therapists. There’s no obligation at all, but it can be helpful to ask questions and share any concerns you have about your child.

If your child has had a lot of screentime, try not to dwell on it. Now, you can take steps to help your child grow and thrive. Focus on the changes you can make today, and contact your pediatrician or a speech therapist if you’re concerned about your child’s communication. The sooner your child gets the support they need, the sooner they’ll start making progress!

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