The digital age has made screens and devices nearly universal. From televisions to smartphones, tablets to computers, kids are surrounded daily with entertaining programs, games, and social content.
Watching children interact with these devices is mind-boggling. As digital natives, their adoption of technology happens extremely young and blazingly fast.
Many kids can navigate YouTube before they can tie their shoes, or tune the television to their favorite show before speaking in complete sentences.
As busy parents, this passive entertainment can be a lifesaver during long car rides or while dinner is cooking.
With all of our daily stressors, sticking a smartphone in front of our children is the 21st century version of a pacifier; it helps cure boredom, prevent a public meltdown, and calm a crying kiddo.
But all this time adds up! Toddlers two years and younger stare at a screen for two hours per day on average, according to the National Center for Health Research.
As children get older, so does their media consumption. Between the ages of eight and 12, kids will spend six hours per day using screens, with teenagers spending up to nine hours daily!
How is Screen Time Affecting Young Children?
The explosion of screen time over the last decade is happening simultaneously as nearly 8% of children are experiencing speech or language disorders.
Every minute a child spends staring at a screen is one less minute interacting with their friends, reading, playing outside, socializing, or conversing.
This all begs the question: is screen time bad? How much screen time is too much? And what effects does screen time have on a child’s language and social development?
Before we can answer these questions, it’s important to understand that not all screen time is created equal. Let’s dive in.
The Difference Between Active and Passive Screen Time
To understand the impact that television and phones have on our child’s budding brains, we first have to make a distinction between active and passive screen time.
Passive Screen Time
Passive screen time is when we “passively” and sedatarily consume content with little thought, engagement, or interaction. I’ll use some of my guilty habits as an example:
Sometimes I finish a long day of work and simply want to veg out watching a Netflix series. That’s passive screen time. Or more often than I’d like to admit, I find myself absent-mindedly scrolling through social media. Also passive screen time.
Whether a child or adult, this type of screen time requires no creative or cognitive activity – we’re neither physically or mentally engaging with what’s being shown on screen.
Active Screen Time
Conversely, active screen time encourages children to cognitively interact with screen-based activities. Just like your child’s eating habits and physical activity, active screen time can be part of a healthy diet when used appropriately. It’s stimulating and creatively driven, requiring children to think, problem solve, and remain engaged.
Here’s a few examples of active screen time:
- Video chatting with friends and family
- Completing homework on the computer
- Certain educational apps that promote language and communication, like ABC Mouse or the Noggin App.
- Video games that require physical movement
- Online therapy or tutoring that’s face-to-face and participatory
Active screen time does not have to be boring, sometimes it just requires a little more work on the parent’s part.
We must follow our child’s interests, recognize their learning style, and find stimulating screen-based activities that are fun and engaging.
The Impacts of Passive Screen Time on a Child’s Language and Cognitive Development
From the moment a child is born until around their 5th birthday, their brains are rapidly developing and maturing. And while technology is evolving at a rapid pace, the way that children learn to communicate has always been the same.
These essential speech and language skills happen gradually through listening, imitating, and having genuine real-world interactions with people around them.
The way that children learn, process, and use language early on will last with them a lifetime.
When you take your child on a stroll around the neighborhood, they have an opportunity to explore their surroundings and ask inquisitive questions. When they read a book, it sparks their imagination, builds narrative skills, hones their ability to focus and concentrate, and teaches new sounds and words to expand their vocabulary.
When they play and interact with other children, they learn social cues and participate in back-and-forth exchanges that serve as the foundation for holding productive conversations.
These important skills have a lasting impact on your child’s communication, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Missed opportunities to practice these skills rack up the more children spend staring passively at a screen.
Researchers have found a strong correlation between passive screen time and its impact on language development.
One such study examined the effects of media consumption on over 1,000 toddlers two years and younger. In short, researchers concluded that for each additional hour of time toddlers spent passively viewing videos, they said six to eight fewer words on average.
In other words, more time on a screen meant less expressive vocabulary.
In addition to stunted language acquisition, passive screen time may increase the risk that children develop a language delay. A language delay is a disorder that results from children not reaching age-appropriate milestones, and can have implications on their ability to both understand and use language needed to communicate their needs, feelings, and ideas.
This study found that infants 12 months and younger were six times more likely to have a language delay if they watched more than two hours of screen time a day!
The impact of screen time doesn’t just affect language development. It can also impact a child’s speech development, meaning their ability to accurately articulate sounds, words, and sentences.
In one pivotal study, toddlers who spent an additional 30 minutes daily consumed by a handheld device – such as a phone, tablet, or portable gaming system – were 49% more likely to experience a delay in their speech development.
Recommendation on Screen Time Use
As caregivers, screen time is another tool in our parenting toolbox. Exceptions will happen, and for many families, eliminating passive screen time altogether just isn’t a reality.
As the classic phrase goes, “Everything in moderation, including moderation”.
With that said, staying vigilant and proactive about the amount of time your child spends passively staring at screens is highly beneficial to their communication and cognitive development.
For some general guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) provides recommendations on how and when to use screens with your child.
- 18 Months and Younger: This age is a time of rapid brain development. Therefore, AAP recommends attempting to limit screen time for babies and young toddlers altogether. One notable exception, which is particularly relevant in the time of COVID-19, is video chatting with family or healthcare professionals, so long as they’re accompanied by an adult. This is also considered active screen time because your child is engaging and interacting with the people on screen.
- 18-24 Months: Slowly introducing your child to digital media at this age is appropriate, but there’s a few things to keep in mind. Try to limit their overall usage and make sure to introduce your child to educational content. As an added bonus, you can make screen time a learning moment by asking thought-provoking questions throughout or after the program. Examples could be, “Can you point to the blue object?” or “What is that?”
- 2-5 Years of Age: This is the age range that children regularly become content connoisseurs. You may start hearing the pleading, the whining, the begging for ten additional minutes. And to be fair, it’s not entirely realistic to cut out all media consumption in your child’s life. The AAP recommends limiting passive or non-educational screen time to one hour on the weekdays and three hours on the weekends. As mentioned before, do your best to remain engaged in your child’s screen time, sitting alongside them to ask questions and make connections between what they’re seeing on screen and the real world.
- Ages 6 and Older: Continue to remain proactive about your child’s screen habits, and monitor whether it’s having an effect on their academics, sleep schedule, or physical exercise.
How to Set Limits on Screen Time and Encourage Positive Habits
Regardless of your child’s age or media consumption, it’s never too late (or early) to encourage healthy screen habits. Try implementing these simple strategies at home today.
- Turn off the television during mealtime! Not only is this distracting, but it can limit quality bonding and conversational time with your child.
- Set a rule about no screens 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
- Family trips and outings are about, well, family. Make sure they stay that way by leaving the devices at home or in your pocket.
- Many devices and streaming services have parental-controls built in. Use this to monitor your child’s watching habits, ensuring they are viewing or playing age-appropriate programs and games. You may also be able to set timers.
- Try to avoid using screens to placate an angry child or pacificy a temper tantrum. This is often easier said than done, but bribing children with screen time can quickly turn into a reflex that’s hard to walk back.
- Instead, try using screen time as a reward. Here’s the difference between a bring and reward: A bribe is offered to a child in the middle of a bad behavior, whereas a reward is decided upon ahead of time. Both can be used to motivate a child, but a reward reinforces positive behavior. You can learn more about bribes and rewards here.
- Children mimic their parents. One of the best techniques for encouraging healthy screen time is by exhibiting them yourself. Set a good example for your child by keeping your own phone and television habits to a minimum.
- We’ve mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth reinstating: make screen time as engaging as possible. Instead of plopping them in front of a television or phone and walking away, sit with your children. Make connections between what they’re seeing on screen and the real world, and ask stimulating questions.
What if My Child is Already Addicted to Screens?
Habits can be hard – but not impossible – to break. It just takes some diligence and extra work for us as parents. Here’s a few tips and tricks that can help.
- Be realistic: It’s unreasonable to completely dismantle your child’s viewing habits over night. Going cold turkey isn’t necessarily the right approach. We want to slowly move to a place where expectations and ground rules are set, without completely shocking the system.
- Remain aware: Many parents simply have no idea on how much their child spends on screen. Just being aware of screen time, or setting up system controls to monitor their usage, is a great place to start. For the good or bad, what you find may surprise you.
- Set ground rules: It’s important that you’re not arbitrarily setting rules, but instead there are clear expectations that your child understands. Here’s a few examples of rules you can use depending on your preferences. You can simply determine the number of minutes/hours your child can use screens each day. Alternatively, you can select blocks of time within the day that screens are allowed, such as an hour after dinner.
- Use screen time as a reward: Similarly, you can use screen time as a reward for something your child has accomplished. For example, they get to watch an hour of television once they clean their room or complete their homework, or they can play 30 minutes of video games after an hour of physical activity.
- Find alternative activities: Instead of just cutting out screen time or media consumption, try to replace it with another activity that your child loves. This is extremely helpful, but may require a bit of trial and error. Try to pick activities that are fun, engaging, and also contribute to your child’s communication development. Activities can include reading their favorite books, playing outside, working on craft projects, playing with toys or board games, cooking, socializing with friends, and more.
About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services.