Tablets and cell phones have the ability to make our lives so much easier, and as busy parents or caregivers, it can be tempting to hand over a screen to a child to keep them entertained. But a recent study suggests that exposure to these devices may be negatively affecting children's brains and language development.
The Journal of the American Medical Association has published a study that shows a link between higher screen use and lower amounts of brain structure and skill development for preschool children. The structure they're referring to is white matter, which helps connect different parts of the brain so they can communicate with one another.
In this study, parents of preschoolers ages 3 - 5 filled out a survey about how their children use TV, tablets and phones as well as the length of time spent using them. After conducting MRIs on these healthy children, the researchers found that more screen time was associated with more disorganized and underdeveloped white matter. Excessive screen time was also strongly associated with poorer literacy and language skills based on cognitive tests of these children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all from birth to 2 years old, and no more than 1 hour of screen time per day for children ages 2 to 5 years old. Of course, more research will need to be done to further support these findings, and it's important to note that outside factors that affect children's development (e.g. language exposure, level of play, parent stress etc.) weren't accounted for in this study. But the average amount of screen time per day was only 2 hours for these participants and the effects are already noticeable, so it's possible that over time, too much screen time could continue to affect their literacy, language and cognition.
So what can you do? Take small steps to be aware of your children's screen time and find ways to engage them in activities that will help their language development.
Infants: The only screen time children under 2 should be exposed to is video-chatting with friends and family. You should also be aware that even just having the TV on in the same room as an infant or toddler can affect their ability to play or interact with others.
Toddlers: While video chatting with friends and family, children over 2 can actually start picking up words from the people on the other end of the call! The limited use of touch screens can also be beneficial for language development when parents or guardians participate with them and reinforce what they've learned later.
Preschoolers: The best way for young children to learn and develop language is ideally with playtime with adults or other children. Educational TV shows like Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger's Neighbourhood can help teach children vocabulary and develop their social skills, but again, the benefits increase when viewed alongside a parent or guardian who can talk about the content with them in other settings.
We want to note that we know it can take a lot of energy to actively engage your child all day, and for many parents and caregivers, electronic devices allow them to work and take care of other tasks while looking after children. We're here to support all parents and guardians – this information is meant to help inform your choices, not judge them.
Do you have concerns about a child's language development? Not sure if they're on track? Check out this blog post to read about the typical norms for children's language from age 1 to 5, or contact us for an assessment.
Hutton JS, Dudley J, Horowitz-Kraus T, DeWitt T, Holland SK. Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children. JAMA Pediatr. 2020;174(1):e193869.
LaMotte, S. (2019, November 4). MRIs show screen time linked to lower brain development in preschoolers. CNN Health. https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/04/health/screen-time-lower-brain-development-preschoolers-wellness/index.html.
Andalusia Speech Therapy has multiple clinics across Ontario and offers virtual therapy to anywhere in the world. Contact us more for information.