The real problem with screen time? Speech delays

Ever hand off your phone to your baby to keep her quiet? Or watched an infant stare at an iPad? A new study may have parents thinking twice when it comes to babies and screen time.

New research presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting this year found that the more time children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years spent using handheld screens, the more likely they were to experience speech delays.

Ramya Kumar, a speech and language pathologist with Banner Children’s at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center, isn’t surprised by the findings.

“I do think that increased screen time is impacting some of the speech-language development,” she says. “Is it the only thing that’s causing delays? Like the authors of the study, I believe there needs to be more research.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the study revealed that of nearly 900 children surveyed at their 18-month checkup, 20 percent used handheld devices for an average of 28 minutes daily, according to their parents. Researchers found that for every 30-minute increase in daily screen time, there was a 49 percent increase in delays for using sounds and words.

The study was done by Dr. Catherine Birken and her team from The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Researchers didn’t find a link between screen time and delays in other types of communication.

In 2016, the AAP lifted its “no screen time” recommendation for children under 2. Screen time is still discouraged, but video chats are now deemed acceptable. For children ages 15 months to 2 years, AAP says parents can allow high-quality programming and watch it with their children.

The real problem with screen time is the lack of human interaction, Kumar explains.

“From zero to 3 in perspective to brain development, there’s just a lot of neurons firing, a lot of networks that are being created,” Kumar explains. “We are hands-on learners. Our skin has a lot of sensory receptors that are sending messages to our brain and wiring things. So, if we don’t have the opportunity to touch and feel 3D objects and [have those] experiences, it can impact our learning of what’s going on and how we even perceive the world.”

Seeing and hearing tech devices is “very different from hearing that human voice that’s next to you, or hearing the voice that you were hearing in utero when you were in the womb and just making those connections in the brain,” Kumar says.

She often sees parents using a phone to calm an infant. She knows such devices aren’t going away, but says parents need to be actively engaged and communicating with their child.

“Help them to verbalize, because a lot of times they’re having these behaviors because they can’t communicate,” she explains. “Just giving them a device to shut them down is not teaching them coping skills. Everything is a balance; everything in moderation.”

Kumar adds, “What research has shown is that the more kids can touch and feel and manipulate objects, play with toys, flip books, look at them, they are more engaged. Their attention is more sustained, and the brain is getting stronger messages of what those words are or what those messages are for them to be able to process and verbalize.”

And while more studies on the use of screen time for all ages are needed, Kumar has this suggestion: When using learning apps, make sure there is parental involvement.

“There are some great apps out there,” she says. “A lot of speech pathologists are using apps in their therapy sessions as well. You can use it, as long as you are using it as a tool with human interaction, as opposed to replacing human interaction.”

She also suggests putting screens down during the daily commute.

“Car rides are great times for that burst of language development. It’s a great time to point things out, such as letters and colors,” Kumar explains.

Even asking, “What happened in school today?” is an opportunity for a child to think through and express themselves verbally. “It teaches them to get their message across,” she says.