Study shows screen time is replacing vital language opportunities for toddlers

A first-of-its kind study has found that for every minute of screen time toddlers are exposed to at home, they hear fewer adult words, make fewer vocalisations and engage in fewer back-and-forth conversations with their parents.

The research, led by Telethon Kids Institute Senior Research Officer and the University of Adelaide’s Dr Mary Brushe, saw researchers track 220 Australian families over a two-and-a-half-year period to measure the relationship between family screen use and children’s language environment.

The study – part of Dr Brushe’s PhD with the University of Adelaide – saw researchers use Fitbit-like devices to measure the amount of electronic noise and parent-child talk surrounding children aged between 12 and 36 months. This included noise generated by screens viewed by the parent and/or child.

Worn at home by children for 16-hour periods at multiple points in time (when the children were aged 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36 months), the device used LENA speech recognition technology to reveal the number of adult words, child vocalisations and parent-child interactions that occurred during the recorded period.

In all, researchers coded more than 7,000 hours of audio to calculate the amount of screen time children were exposed to as opposed to other electronic noises.

“We wanted to understand how much screen time children were exposed to during the early years and whether that interfered with the amount of language these kids heard and spoke in their home,” Dr Brushe said.

“We know the amount of talk and interaction children experience is critical for their early language development – this study highlights that screen time may be getting in the way of that.”

The findings – published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics – showed the more screen time children were exposed to, the less parent-child interaction they experienced during the critical early years.

“Our findings support the notion of ‘technoference’ as a real issue for Australian families, whereby young children’s exposure to screen time is interfering with opportunities to talk and interact in their home environment,” Dr Brushe said.

“We know the amount of talk and interaction children experience is critical for their early language development – this study highlights that screen time may be getting in the way of that.”Dr Mary Brushe, School of Public Health, University of Adelaide.

“The results were most profound when children reached three years of age. Just one minute of screen time was associated with seven fewer adult words, five fewer child vocalisations and one less back-and-forth interaction.”

Dr Brushe said the findings suggest children whose families follow current World Health Organization screen time guidelines – one hour a day for children aged 36 months – could be missing out on up to 397 adult words, 294 vocalisations, and 68 conversational turns every day.

“We know, however – both from our own data and from international estimates – that children on average are exceeding these guidelines,” she said.

“Based on the actual average daily screen time for children in this study at 36 months – 172 minutes, or just under three hours – they could in fact be missing out on up to 1,139 adult words, 843 vocalisations and 194 conversational turns per day.

“What’s also interesting is that the study did not necessarily capture parental use of mobile phones in the presence of their children. The devices only picked up noise associated with screen time – for example TV shows, videos or games.

“If anything, we have probably underestimated how much screen usage – and associated ‘technoference’ – is going on around children because we haven’t been able to capture parents’ silent screen-related activities, such as reading emails, texting, or quietly scrolling through websites or social media.”

Families who took part in the study did not know at the time of recording that screen time was going to be measured. This analysis was done retrospectively, after parents’ consent was sought.

“This meant we ended up with a more realistic view of young children’s screen exposure because parents were not subconsciously altering their normal habits,” Dr Brushe said.

It’s not all bad news. Dr Brushe said that while screen time had become part of daily life for most people, there were ways to reduce potential impacts on children.

“Parents and family members do need to think about what their child might be missing out on when they choose to turn on a screen, but it might be that they opt for interactive co-viewing as a way to reduce the burden of screen time or make a point of engaging in conversation when a screen is on,” Dr Brushe said.

“This might include singing along with theme songs, repeating phrases or questions from the screen, and using the content of a show as a conversation starter after the screen has been turned off.

“Interventions designed to support parents can educate them on high quality educational screen content that is age appropriate for their child and can support language learning and interaction.”

The study, Screen time and parent-child talk when children are aged 12 to 36 months, was a collaboration with the University of Adelaide, the University of Oxford, and the Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University and can be read in JAMA.

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