Mobile Devices Impact Speech Abilities in Kids

Mobile Devices Impact Speech Abilities in KidsMobile Devices Impact Speech Abilities in Kids

Hand-held screens might delay a child’s ability to form words, based on new research being presented this week at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco. This preliminary study is the first to show how mobile devices impact speech development in children.

But for parents, who see mobile devices as an education tool, don’t immediately lock away the smartphone or tablet. Here’s what they should know about the risk.

Studies on media usage and child development are difficult to conduct. Doctors can’t exactly split up a bunch of babies and say, “you kids spend a lot of time with your iPads, while the rest of you don’t. Let’s see what happens.”

Each additional 30 minutes of hand-held screen time was linked to a 49% increased risk in expressive speech delay, reported. Other forms of communication — gestures, emotions, social eye-gazing — were unaffected.

Catherine Birken, a pediatrician and scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, relied on well-child visits, regular checkups that assess a child’s growth, health and development. From 2011 to 2015, she asked the parents to estimate how much time their children spent each day with hand-held screens, like smartphones, tablets and electronic games.

Meanwhile, Birken and her team assessed each child with the Infant Toddler Checklist — a screening tool that looks for signs of delayed communication development.

“It isn’t a definitive diagnosis,” Birken said, but it does assess whether a child is at-risk and needs to be referred for further evaluation. In total, Birken’s team recruited and examined nearly 900 toddlers, aged 6 to 24 months, for the study.

By the time they reached their 18-month checkups, 20% of the children used mobile devices for 28 minutes on average each day. They found children who spent more time with hand-held screens were more likely to exhibit signs of a delay in expressive speech — how children use their sounds and words, and how they put their words together to communicate.

“Parents should be wary of educational apps marketed for children 24 months or younger,” said University of Michigan developmental pediatrician Jenny Radesky, because “the science on this says quite clearly that [these] children just don’t symbolically understand what they’re seeing on a two-dimensional screen.”

“When kids can’t express themselves they get really frustrated. They are more likely to act out more or to use their bodies to try to communicate or use attention-seeking behaviors,” she said.

In the short term, an expressive speech delay can influence a child’s ability to conceptualize words or define their emotions. Though some children who are behind at 18 months or 24 months can eventually catch up, over time, these language delays can impede literacy skills in grade school.

“Early language delays have been linked with later academic problems or not finishing high school,” Radesky said.

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