Interactive screen time to prevent speech and language delays in toddlers

Children today are exposed to screen-based entertainment and information, which has become an integral part of their lives and as a result, screen time has increased even among very young children.

Screen time is the total time spent per day looking at screens such as a cell phone, TV, computer, tablet, or other portable or visual device.

The pandemic-induced lockdown has further increased screen time due to daycare and/or preschool closures, as well as fewer opportunities to interact with other children, impacting negatively on their development, especially in very young children. In some cases, it can even be up to 6-7 hours a day, which takes up most of a toddler’s waking time.

Adverse effects on language development
Excessive exposure to screens in very young children and its undesirable consequences are mentioned in many studies. This can lead to both receptive (understanding language) and expressive (speaking) attention problems, obesity, visual problems like nearsightedness, sleep deprivation, eating problems, reduced social interaction and poor development. delayed language.

Representative image: Shutterstock images


In contemporary clinical practice, the majority of children who complain of poor language skills use screens extensively.

Public awareness
Many parents are unaware that increased screen time will cause language delay. In a survey of parental awareness of the impact of screen time on communication in toddlers, language delay was the least reported impact and visual problems were the most reported impact. which indicates the ignorance of the parents on the matter.

Many parents believe that by exposing their children to nursery rhymes and cartoons, they will learn to speak. However, studies have shown that older children can learn vocabulary just by watching television, while younger children can only learn vocabulary if supported by social interaction.

Non-Interactive Screen Time Vs Interactive Screen Time
The screen itself is not the villain of delayed language development in children; rather, it’s the lack of interactivity during screen time that’s the problem.

Children who passively watch screens without any interaction or interference from adults can be referred to as non-interactive screen time, while interactive screen time is when the caregiver/adult looks at the screen with the child talking and acting out what he sees.

Non-interactive screens are always one-sided and do not require the child to respond. Screen time will decrease parent-child interaction, which will have a substantial impact on a child’s language development.

Background TV and parent screen time
When it comes to toddler language development, it’s not just direct television viewing, but also background television viewing that disrupts the sustained play of 12- and 24-year-olds. month.

It also decreases the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions compared to interactions that take place with the television turned off. Parental screen time should also be limited, as parental interactions with young children have been shown to decrease significantly due to parental use of cell phones.

Accordingly, it appears that parental involvement with electronic devices may reduce the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions, which are essential for the development of cognitive skills, particularly language and executive functions.

Time spent in front of a screen replaces time spent interacting, reducing communication opportunities. Moreover, when screen time increases, the chances of reduced parent-child interaction are high.

Human-human interactions have a strong influence on children’s language development, both for perception and for speech production. The first years of a child’s life are the most critical period for a child’s language development. The child must therefore benefit from adequate linguistic stimulation during this period.

Recommended screen time guidelines
The World Health Organization (2019) and the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) (2016) advised children to limit their screen time. The Indian Academy of Pediatrics (IAP) recently released screen time guidelines for parents.

Speech delay has been mentioned as one of the negative effects of excessive screen time for children. According to the IAP (2021), children under the age of two should not be exposed to any type of screen, with the exception of occasional video calls with loved ones.

Screen time for children aged 2 to 5 should not exceed one hour per day; the less time spent on screens, the better. In a recent study in Kerala, screen time was found to be above recommended limits in the majority of preschoolers.

Despite all the recommendations and guidelines to limit screen time, most parents find it difficult to limit screen time due to the confinement imposed by the Covid 19 pandemic. So here are some tips to help caregivers support their children’s language development even when they are staring at screens.

Tips for using interactive screen time appropriately
1. Practice co-viewing. Co-viewing strengthens the parent-child bond and allows you to monitor the content your child watches. However, coviewing alone will not help language development. Parents can practice co-viewing and describe what they see on the screen.

2. The various language stimulation techniques used in shared reading can be used in the context of screen time. Visual elements on the screen can be described in simple language so children can understand what they are seeing.

3. Acknowledge and respond to their communication efforts. In the meantime, ask simple questions. Extend and expand their words. Expanding and extending will help increase the average length of utterances.

4. Connect on-screen visuals to real life. For example, if they see a girl eating a banana on the screen, they should help her remember past instances when she ate a banana or show her the banana at home. If a child points to a flower, parents can encourage them to say the name of the flower, its smell, where it is, etc.

With more verbal children, parents can encourage imaginative play and role-playing scenarios in their children based on the cartoons they watch. For example, if the child likes the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”, the parents can act as Tom and the child as Jerry, or vice versa, using appropriate dialogue.

5. Avoid background screens, while having quality time with your kids. Caregivers’ attention may be divided when the screen is on in the background and this may affect the quality of parent-child interaction. Excessive children’s exposure to background television has also been shown to negatively impact language development, attention, and executive functions in children under the age of five.

6. Caregivers can participate in games involving objects similar to those seen in the media, such as building blocks or caught balls. Introduce various strategies to extend media learning to children, such as acting out a story based on content from a recent TV show they watched, or labeling the colors of common household items they learned from. an application.

7. Parents should be aware that repetition can help children learn. For example, if the child learns to count from a TV show, he should concentrate on counting repeatedly while watching different shows and in real-life situations. This will also help in the generalization of the learned skill.

8. E-books are becoming increasingly popular. E-books may be encouraged over moving videos, as e-books have been proven to have many advantages over traditional print books. Visual and audio effects of e-books and animation help with story understanding and event sequencing in preschoolers.

9. Early literacy can be encouraged by using interactive “learn to read” apps and e-books to practice letters, phonics, word recognition and reading.

10. Limit caregiver screen time. Because parent-child interaction will be limited when caregiver screen time is high. This will have a negative effect on children’s language development due to the low language stimulating environment the child is in. Provide a language-rich environment for the child’s language development.

Thus, screen time promotes language development in children as well as entertainment when quality content is viewed and discussed with a parent or caregiver (Linebarger & Walker, 2005).

Remember that the screen has its own limits and many other bad effects if it exceeds the limits. So, whenever possible, avoid screen time, especially during mealtimes and an hour before bed, and spend quality, language-rich time with young children.

(The authors are part of the Department of Neurodevelopmental Sciences, National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH). Vrinda R and Krishna AR are lecturers in speech therapy and Suja K Kunnath is a professor)

About Michelle T. Friesen

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