It’s Saturday morning and I’m drinking my coffee in the kitchen when I hear the dull thumping of little footsteps on the stairs. “Mama? Mama?” My four-year-old calls as he carefully makes his way down. He trudges into the kitchen in saggy pajamas capped with a shock of blond bedhead. I open my arms for a morning snuggle, but he brushes past me. “Mama? Can we watch a show?” he asks. I try to hug him but he pushes me away with knobby elbows. “Can we watch a show?” he repeats, and then more frantically, “Can we watch??”
“Come, sweetie,” I whisper, opening my arms again. “Good morning. I’m happy to see you.” But he is having none of it. He is still coming down from last night’s screen-fest, and so he starts the day like an addict in need of his next fix.
You see, on Friday nights, we have a tradition of inviting the neighbors over for pizza and a movie. The grownups crowd into the kitchen where we consume onion rings and drinks while the kids stuff their faces in front of the TV. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not the healthiest of routines, but it’s a ritual we all look forward to, decompressing with friends at the end of a long week.
But lately, there’s been some backlash from it. Lately, the boys come downstairs the next morning with crazy eyes, rushing for the television, and I’m reminded why I made the choice last year to eliminate TV during the week entirely. For our household, it was more trouble than it was worth.
It turns out, we aren’t alone.
In October 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced new screen time recommendations for children, decreasing recommended times significantly. According to the new guidelines, children under 18 months of age should not be exposed to any screen time at all, citing risks of overstimulation and the possibility for disconnect between baby and parent. Children aged two to five years of age should be allowed no more than one hour of screen time per day, representing a 50 percent decrease from the two hours daily allowed by the previous set of guidelines.
This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics presented a study at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting outlining the risk of speech delays associated with screen time exposure in young children. This study comes on the heels of another published last month, which linked touchscreen use by infants and toddlers with significant decreases in their nighttime sleep.
In the new study presented on May 6, 2017, researchers tracked nearly 900 kids, aged six months to two years, over a period of four years. Through parental surveys and regular check-ups, the researchers gathered information about how much screen time each child averaged daily. They then screened each child for speech and language delays. Researchers found that the more handheld screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have delays in expressive speech. Remarkably, for each 30 minute increase in handheld screen time, the risk of expressive speech delay increased by 49 percent.
While researchers admit that it’s too early to establish a causal relationship between screen time and speech delays, they express the need for further studies to explore the possibility. “In order to actually develop the evidence to inform parents and clinicians about what to recommend, we need more definitive research,” lead researcher Dr. Catherine Birken told CNN last week.
In the meantime, some ways that parents can help to nurture healthy screen time habits include:
- Limiting screen time consumption according the current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Setting limits on where touchscreen devices are allowed to be used in the home. Keeping them out of bedrooms and away from the dinner table are great places to start.
- Consuming media together as a family and using it to spark conversation.
- Ensuring that media consumption does not interfere with adequate sleep, physical activity, or other behaviors essential to your child’s health.
While this study doesn’t tell us exactly how screen time and speech development are related, it is the newest research that has linked increased screen time in young children with detrimental effects.