Does screen time affect children’s language skills?


by Louise Bingham – Speech and Language Therapist
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There is lots of information online stating that using screens has a detrimental effect on children’s language development. In the current climate of ‘fake news’ it can be easy to interpret this information as evidence against the use of screens and as a result they can be viewed very negatively. This has led to many parents and professionals calling for recommendations to be given for screen time limits with children.

When talking about screen time we mean any time that a person spends looking at a screen including TV, smart phones, tablets, computers and games consoles. This can include passive screen time, such as watching a video, or active screen time, such as playing a game where there is an element of interactivity. The use of screens and digital devices has significantly increased over the past decade and is evolving rapidly in terms of use for socialising, education and in the workplace. The average age for children to have a smart phone is now 9 years of age and younger and younger children have frequent access to screens.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published a guide in January 2019 which summarises evidence of the impact of screen time on health and provides advice for parents https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/resources/health-impacts-screen-time-guide-clinicians-parents. There is currently only very weak evidence for an impact of screen time (either positive or negative) on children’s language skills and education, therefore it is difficult for recommendations about screen time limits to be made.

So, while we are waiting for clear guidance on screen time limits, what advice should we be using as parents?

Interact with the child around what they are watching or doing:

Children are not likely to learn anything, particularly during passive watching of videos, if there is no discussion or interaction around what they are watching. It is recommended that parents interact with children around what they are watching or doing, and this will help them to understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them. Use our ‘Watching TV together’ and ‘Playing computer games’ handouts found in the Everyday Activities section for ideas.

Make sure there is a balance of screen time and other activities:

If children are completing activities using screens for a long period of time, this can affect the time they have available for other important activities, such as sleep, exercise and interaction with others. We know that the best way to develop children’s language and communication skills is through everyday face to face interactions, for example during bath time or meal time, so it is important that face to face interactions are prioritised.

Protect sleep:

Most experts advise that children (and adults) should not be exposed to screens for an hour before bed, as the stimulation from the light of the screen is thought to affect the brain’s ability to wind down. Lack of sleep can result in difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering information and poor mood, which we have all experienced when we have a bad night’s sleep!

Set clear boundaries around screen time use at home (with parents also sticking to them!)

It can be beneficial for families to create rules for screen use at home together, as it is important that everyone understands these and sticks to them, including adults who need to provide a good role model of screen use. This could include designating screen free times (such as during dinner) or screen free zones (such as bedrooms).

Be realistic and acknowledge the positives:

Most (if not all) parents will regularly use screen time to get on with a task, give them a well-deserved break and to provide down-time for children at the end of a long day. Writing this blog has made me think about my own screen use (especially the time spent writing this at my computer). On pretty much a daily basis I watch TV in the evening with my partner, read my book with an e-reader before going to sleep, and meditate using an app on my smart phone. It is important to acknowledge that there are lots of positives around using smart devices including the development of fine motor skills, problem solving skills, productivity at home and at work, and the ability to keep in touch with family and friends. Time spent on screens is a major part of modern life and, therefore, a necessary part of children’s lives. It is important that we acknowledge the potential positives and negatives of screen time and, as with most things, it is about having a healthy balance of activities that enable us to achieve and be happy.

For further information and advice visit www.internetmatters.org