Increased Screen Time Might Explain Why Toddler Speech Delays Are Becoming More Common

woman playing with toddler

Another day, another study about the potential damage screen time might be doing to your kid. This time, the news could be important: According to the latest research, the more time babies and toddlers spend using handheld devices like tablets and smartphones, the more likely they are to experience delayed speech.


As part of the study, which was released last week and is being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, researchers looked at the screen time habits of nearly 900 toddlers and assessed their language development -- including whether or not kids used sounds to get attention, whether they put words together, and how many words they used -- at 18 months. Around 20 percent of the kids used screens for an average of 28 minutes per day, and researchers found that every 30-minute increase in screen time is linked to a 49 percent increase in the risk of a child's developing "expressive speech delays" (which refers to using sounds and words).

More from CafeMom: 5 Ways Screen Time Can Actually Be Good for Your Kid

According to Dr. Catherine Birken, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Ontario, and the study's senior investigator, this was the "first study to examine mobile media device and communication delay" in kids. And while the results do seem to be significant, "more definitive research" is needed before any real conclusions can be drawn. Specifically, Birken said that the content toddlers are reviewing needs to be considered, as well as whether or not they're using devices with a parent or caregiver present.

"It's the first time that we've sort of shone a light on this potential issue, but I think the results need to be tempered (because) it's really a first look," she told CNN.

That "current recommendation" by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages any screen use at all for kids younger than 18 months (unless they're doing something like video chatting with family members). For kids between 18 and 24 months, the AAP revised its original stance last year -- which called for no screen time at all -- to reflect the reality of most families, now advising parents to stick to "high-quality programming" and to watch it alongside their children. 

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So how much do you need to worry about letting your little one play on your phone when you're stuck in traffic or trying to get dinner on the table? As a mother of three kids whose ages range from 2 to almost 16, I'll admit that I take these screen time studies with a grain of salt. Not only because experts seem to be shifting and revising their thoughts on this topic all the time, but because my own personal experience has been, apparently, somewhat atypical.

As the third child of a busy working mom, my little one definitely knows his way around an iPhone (though I try to resort to this crutch as little as possible), and he was actually an early talker (so were his sister and brother -- though they were born before smartphones, poor things). I'm not trying to justify my use of parenting shortcuts, but I do think it's a point that needs to be made: When it comes to kids and technology, it seems that every child is different, and a little common sense goes a long way.

Obviously our kids shouldn't spend more time talking to Siri than they do talking to us. Talking to and truly interacting with our kids is key to developing their language skills. But does every minute your toddler spends on a phone or tablet really result in a corresponding slowdown of verbal development? 

As the researchers themselves seem to suggest, it's clearly not that black and white. And it should be very interesting to see what future studies find. (I'm particularly curious about content -- alphabet learning apps have got to be better than YouTube surprise egg videos, right?) But in the meantime, all we can really do is try to set reasonable limits and engage with our kids as much as possible. After all, there's no substitute for real, live human interaction.

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