Do Smartphones and Other Devices Cause Speech Delays in Young Children?

May 12, 2017 12:00 PM

Past research has shown that very young kids gain no educational benefit from handheld devices. A new study finds they might even hinder development.

Any frazzled parent knows: Handing off a smartphone or tablet can soothe tantrums, or give adults a break.

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But this habit might be detrimental to very young children, a Canadian study showed this month.

Children ages 6 months to 2 years who spent extensive time with handheld devices were more likely to have speech delays, according to research led by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

One Michigan Medicine pediatrician isn’t surprised by the link.

“Research shows that children don’t learn or understand words or other concepts as well from screen media as they do from real-life interaction,” says Jenny Radesky, M.D., who wasn’t involved in the study but last year helped update American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for digital media use in kids 5 and younger.

“Infants and toddlers don’t yet have very good symbolic thinking,” Radesky says. “They can’t ‘decode’ what’s happening on an app or screen and transfer that to the real world.”

Worse, she says, is that time spent with technology takes away the real-life social interactions key to a child’s language development.

Among these: “Telling stories, singing songs, reading, picking up on what a child is interested in, and teaching them more about it — or even pretending that stuffed animals are alive and having a conversation with the child,” says Radesky, also a developmental behavior expert at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“The more complex the language that children hear, the better their language development will be.”

Many factors at play

The study, which analyzed the parent-reported screen habits of nearly 900 children under 2, found that kids used devices for an average of 28 minutes a day.

SEE ALSO: Video Games OK in Moderation, If You Know When to Hit ‘Pause’

When investigators compared usage habits with language development screenings administered during checkups, they found that with every 30 minutes of portable technology use came a 49 percent increased risk of expressive speech delay.

But the updated AAP guidelines recommend that babies 18 months and younger have no screen time at all, with the exception of video-chatting. Children ages 2 to 5 should keep it to one hour of high-quality daily programming under adult supervision, and put screens away during mealtime, playtime and one hour before bed.

Researchers controlled for parents’ income and education levels, but didn’t account for other possible factors contributing to screen time such as single-parent households and whether a caretaker works multiple jobs or faces high stress, notes Radesky.

Nor did they ask if a child was known to have an existing speech delay.

Still, says Radesky, the results underscore the need to minimize young children’s screen exposure.

In addition, there isn’t much evidence showing that smartphone apps for kids — many billed as educational — spark learning. The few titles that have been studied, including those made by Sesame Workshop, are typically designed for ages 3 and older.

“We want parents to be aware that there really is no educational value to apps … (for very young children), despite the heavy marketing to families,” Radesky says. “These are very immature brains and they need an adult’s help to learn from two-dimensional screens.”

What parents can do

Radesky, a mother of two young boys, knows that technology and kids are deeply linked — and that the connection isn’t going away.

Which is why she counsels caution, not paranoia, when it comes to phones and tablets in the home.

“We don’t want parents to be worried by the fact a child sees a screen or watches cartoons once in a while … but to avoid reaching for mobile devices just to keep them occupied when bored or cranky,” Radesky says. “We want kids to learn how to handle these feelings.”

As a child grows older, however, parents should ensure that usage isn’t gratuitous or inappropriate (fast-paced, distracting or violent content should be avoided).

Playing educational digital games together — as well as talking to each other throughout — is a good way to help children ease into smartphones and tablets without putting them at risk.

“Media should be a shared activity,” Radesky says.