Screen time’s threat to language development

5 minute read

Researchers have quantified how many words a toddler could be missing out on each day when they watch screens for three hours.

A three-year-old who spends three hours watching screens could miss out on more than 1000 adult words, more than 800 of their own vocalisations and almost 200 conversational turns each day, research suggests. 

Every minute of screen time reduces children’s chance of talking to their caregivers and developing language skills in the crucial early years, Australian researchers say.  

“Our findings support the notion of ‘technoference’ as a real issue for Australian families, whereby young children’s exposure to screen time is interfering with opportunities to talk and interact in their home environment,” said lead author and Telethon Kids Institute senior research officer Dr Mary Brushe. 

Researchers tracked 220 families over 2.5 years and ended up with more than 7000 hours of audio to determine how families’ screen use affected communication between parents and toddlers. 

The children wore electronic trackers every six months from age 12 months to 36 months in the study by Telethon Kids Institute, University of Adelaide and Griffith University researchers.  

The devices tracked the amount of electronic noise and conversation between parents and children, using speech recognition technology to count adult words, child vocalisations and parent-child interactions over 16 hours. 

The researchers compared the figures with adult words and child vocalisations when there were no screens present. They also adjusted for socio-demographic characteristics and whether the primary care givers had mental health concerns. 

The study in JAMA Pediatrics found that when the children were 12 months old, they were exposed to an average of 1.5 hours of screen time a day. By the time they were three, they had just under three hours of screen time a day.  

Dr Brushe said the results were most profound when children reached age three. 

“Just one minute of screen time was associated with seven fewer adult words, five fewer child vocalisations and one less back-and-forth interaction,” the adjunct fellow at the University of Adelaide told media. 

“We know the amount of talk and interaction children experience is critical for their early language development – this study highlights that screen time may be getting in the way of that.” 

Dr Brushe said three-year-olds who had screen time guidelines of one hour a day would miss out on up to 397 adult words, 294 vocalisations, and 68 conversational turns every day. 

“For every minute of screen time, these three-year-olds were hearing seven fewer adult words, speaking five fewer words themselves and engaging in one less conversation each day,” she said. 

“When you consider the average three-year-old in our study was being exposed to two hours and 52 minutes of screen time, this means that could be missing out on as many as 1139 adult words, 843 vocalisations and 194 conversations over the course of an average day.”  

Dr Brushe said screen time may have been underestimated in the study because the trackers only captured noise associated with TV shows, videos or games, and did not track parents’ silent phone use while they were with their children.  

But the researchers acknowledged that it was unrealistic for all families would stop using screens with their young children.  

“We know from other research that these positive interactions are critical for the child’s language development. But we’re not saying screen time is all bad,” Dr Brushe said. 

“The reality of modern life is that screens are everywhere, and it should not become another thing that parents are made to feel guilty about.” 

Dr Brushe said parents could make relatively easy changes to increase conversation time such as choosing high-quality educational content and interacting with their children when watching screens by talking about the program, repeating words or phrases and singing along with the show.  

Australian guidelines recommend no screen time for children under two, and no more than one hour a day for children aged two to five, she said.  

“When we talk to parents in our community through our research, we continuously hear how unrealistic that is,” Dr Brushe said. 

“It’s about finding that balance in your home and making sure that you are doing non-screen-related activities with your child throughout the day and being mindful when you do decide to turn on the screen and think about what you’re putting on and how your child’s using it.” 

Dr Brushe said that while the early years were crucial to language development, it was “never too late to encourage extra interaction and conversation in the home”. 

There was emerging research showing that high-quality educational content could improve language outcomes for young children, she said.  

“But when we’re talking about very, very young kids, they can often struggle to translate what’s happening on the screen into their everyday life. That’s where the parent or the carer becomes important,” she said. 

More broadly Australian children heard on average between 5000 and 35,000 words each day, said Dr Brushe. 

Even before a child started talking, language in the home environment was critical to supporting infants and toddlers to develop language skills, she said.  

“The way we use screens has rapidly evolved from a TV in the family living room to mobile devices for every family member,” she said. 

“For some children, they are already exposed to screens within their first year of life.” 

Dr Brushe said the research differed from previous studies of screen time which had relied on parents self-reporting their and their children’s screen time over short periods.  

JAMA Pediatrics 2024, online 5 March  

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