The link between speech and language delays and screen time

The link between speech and language delays and screen time

Studies suggest that excessive screen time is linked to speech and language delays because face-to-face social interaction is vital to the development of language and other skills.

In Singapore, it is not uncommon for children to be seen using screen devices, and screen time is on the rise, from 60 to 120 minutes among children between ages six months and 24 months.

This is significantly higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines – that children from ages two to five have no more than one hour of screen time, and children below two are recommended to have no screen time at all.

Despite the devices often being used as an educational or entertainment tool, increased hours of screen time have been linked to lower cognitive and language developmental scores in young children.

What are speech and language delays?

A speech delay refers to difficulties a child has in producing speech sounds accurately. Hence, the child may be able to communicate using words and sentences but is difficult to understand. 

A language delay refers to difficulties a child has in understanding what others say and/or communicating with others. There are different types of language delays. For example, a child may understand what others say very well but may not communicate much with others.

Young children experiencing speech and language delays commonly exhibit the following symptoms: 

  • Not babbling, or being able to respond to sounds by 15 months,
  • Prefer to gesture instead of talking; has trouble imitating sounds and understanding verbal requests; not using single words to communicate, by 18 months
  • Unable to convey their needs simply; not being able to follow verbal instructions; not talking by two years old 
  • Not being able to speak in short sentences by three years old
  • Poor pronunciation of words

Some children might also show behavioural problems as they are frustrated when they are unable to express themselves properly.

speech and language delays

Image source: File photo

Speech and language delay can also be associated with other conditions such as hearing impairment, Down’s syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

How are speech and language delays linked to screen time?

A study presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting concluded that infants with more handheld screen time have an increased risk of an expressive speech delay.

The study revealed that for children between ages six and 24 months, each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time is linked to a 49 percent increased risk of developing expressive speech delays, this means that the ability to communicate using words and sentences may be delayed.

speech and language delays

Is your child constantly glued to a mobile device or the television?

Studies suggest that excessive screen time is linked to speech and language delays because face-to-face social interaction is vital to the development of language and other skills.

As spending time on the screen may lead to less time for play and social interaction, there are fewer opportunities for the development of important foundational language skills such as turn-taking.

Screen-based interaction is not an effective substitute for interpersonal interaction, and stifles the child’s ability to develop communication skills, pick up vocabulary, and gain confidence in expressing themselves. 

Do late talkers catch up with their peers?

Between 70 to 80% of late talkers seem to catch up with peers by school going age. These children are sometimes referred to as ‘late bloomers’ because they appear to catch up with peers eventually.

However, research has shown that these children may still continue to face difficulties in developing some language and literacy skills (such as reading, writing and listening comprehension), skills related to language (such as social skills, planning and organising information, perspective taking) and how the brain processes speech. 

speech and language delays

There is also a segment of 20 to 30% of late talkers who do not grow out of their language delay. Hence, if a language delay is suspected, it is important to seek the advice of a speech-language therapist to determine if intervention is necessary.

What precautions can parents take?

Parents should limit their child’s screen time based on their needs and ensure that screen time does not affect their sleep and daily activities.

In this day and age, it is near impossible for a child to grow up isolated from devices such as phones, TVs, tablets and computers. Thus, it is important to understand the pros and cons of digital devices, and how they affect your children.

Distracting a crying child with a smart phone might be the easiest way to capture their attention, as there are moving images, sound effects and/or music.

speech and language delays

Image source: iStock

Unfortunately, this also takes away time that could be spent on real-life interactions, which are important for the development of language and social skills.

Language is best learned through two-way communication, instead of a one-way interaction with a screen.

Teaching alternatives to using devices include: 

  • Carving out time for the family to interact in a fun and engaging way. As children learn best through fun and interaction, it is important to have conversations (e.g. sharing about experiences for slightly older children) or playing people games (such as peek a boo and chasing to keep young children engaged)
  • Opportunities to play in different settings such as indoor and outdoor games, with peers and adults, playground time and fun enrichment classes such as sports
  • Different toys and activities that will provide exposure to range of vocabulary, or allow for pretend play, creativity, exploration (e.g. cause and effect toys, puzzles, art and craft, books, action songs)
  • Introduce language (e.g. vocabulary) using items that are part of their daily life (e.g. different fruits that they eat, items used in daily routines such as toothbrush, water bottle, articles of clothing or rooms in the home)

Screen time can be an easy way out for busy, working parents. However, it is important to remember that parents are their child’s first teacher, and though mobile devices are a powerful tool, technology should be used to assist with learning.

Exploring other methods of engaging and interacting with your child will help to build their language and social skills, while strengthening the parent-child relationship.

This article was contributed by Ms Ng Jia Yue, Senior Speech and Language Therapist, SBCC Child Development (A Member of Healthway Medical Group

Also READ: 30 things your child should understand and say before she turns 2

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