Let’s watch more TV, have more phone time, play more video games, and stare at those iPads all day. Staring at the screen is better than personal interaction, and certainly easier, right? Maybe we stop interacting with people and the real world. And, you know what, we can teach our kids this behavior as early as possible. It is better to be alone, all day, eyes wide open.
When you see it in writing it sounds crazy, right?
Well, it is! But research suggests that we are all increasing our time with screens, and we are letting our kids do the same thing. And all of these crazy behaviors listed above, most of us participate in every day (perhaps unknowingly). Even though we know this can’t be good, we all play along.
What is screen time?
Screen time refers to any activity that includes a screen that is turned on, both directly or indirectly (e.g. TV on in the background). And screen time doesn’t differentiate between watching an educational video versus playing a game. Bummer. Screen time is screen time. Disengaged from the world around you, sedentary or physically inactive, and limited socialization.
What does the research say?
The first few years of life are imperative to development. Language development is at its peak for the first couple of years on this earth. Meaning, your child’s brain is most receptive to learning and building communication pathways when they are young. At this stage, their brains are impressively malleable. Their brains are at a pivotal juncture. It is the time to learn the most important tools to communicate for the rest of their lives. Once this window closes, it is much more difficult to develop appropriate language skills. That is why it is much harder to learn a second language as an adult. Our prime-time to learn, absorb, and develop these skills happens now! Not later. Every minute your child spends in front of the screen is less time they are spending engaged with you and their friends or siblings, observing real interaction, and acquiring building blocks for appropriate development.
A study by Chonchaiya and Pruksananonda found that children introduced to screen time before 12 months were 6x more likely to have language delays. Six times! Another study by Duch et al. found that children who watch more than 2 hours of TV per day have increased odds of decreased communication skills. Dr. Catherine Birken reported in May 2017 that “children who spent more time with hand held screens were more likely to exhibit signs of delay in expressive language. Further each additional 30 minutes of screen time was linked to 49% increase risk of a speech delay.” There is overwhelming evidence outlining the negative impacts of screen time and the associated problems, like reduced attention, short term memory deficits, and reading difficulties. Basically, research is telling us, with a huge, neon yellow sign, “leave those screens behind!”
“I do feel guilty, but sometimes I just give in…“
I hear you. I do too. Life is crazy. Add on a busy work life, multiple kids, limited support, and the fact that you only have 2 hands to do all this work, it is very difficult. Maybe your kid already has delayed language, a disability, or a learning disorder. Stress piles on and sometimes you need a break. An hour without screaming or running around or fighting.. that sounds blissful. I get it. But, I also want you to really understand the impact of these devices, and ask yourself “how much is too much?” The research says, we should cut it off at around 30 minutes a day of screen time. Beyond this amount, we consider the impact that excessive screen time can make on a child’s cognitive, communicative, and social development. And we ask ourselves, are a few moments of peace worth risking my child’s development? Habits are formed quickly and a few instances of giving in to screen time may lead to another one and then another one and so on. We all live in an age of technology, and I too find myself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram for a brain break. So I understand. My goal is to empower you to know the risks, understand that these first few years of life are critical for language development, and remind you that you are doing the best you can each day.
So now what?
Interactive play, talking with your child, play dates with friends, library time with peer groups, singing songs and listening to music together, coloring, going for walks, doing crafts together, there are hundreds of options when we put our iPhones away and close our laptops. The key is to replace screen time with quality time of human interaction. I promise, we are all doing our children and ourselves a huge favor by increasing our time in the real world. Here are some tips to include in order to harness cognitive and communicative growth during those interactions:
1. Increase amount of language that your child hears – This may look like narrating what you or your child is doing (e.g. “Sally eating. Mommy washing dishes. Jump up and down. Big smile.”).
2. Simplify your language – Use phrases or sentences that are just a small step above what you hear your child saying (i.e. if your child says “want cookie”, you can add another word and model “I want cookie.”)
3. Play with intonation and volume – Make your communication engaging and exciting to listen to.
4. Foster communication growth by being present – If we as parents or caregivers reduce our own screen time, we are setting the best example for our children.
Remember that you have the biggest impact on your child’s language and cognitive development, not their teacher or babysitter or even their speech therapist. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t be screen free 100% of the time, I can’t either! But be aware and do your best. Observe the impacts. Understand the risks. And make your own informed decisions on the amount of screen time you allow in your life.
Liana Martinez, M.A. CCC-SLP