New Screen-Time Research Supports the Screen-Language Delay Connection in Children


A while back, we shared an image Screen-Free Dad created and it went viral (see below).

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It was shared and commented on by many. The shares and likes seemed to be those who agreed. The comments were people who vehemently disagreed. The screen-language delay connection seems to be controversial, largely because of misunderstanding how correlational research works. However, new research supports the idea that early screen-use may be associated with increased risk of a language delay.

Tell Me about the Study

The study, not yet published, was presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting on May 6, 2017. Dr. Catherine Birken was the principal investigator and serves as a staff pediatrician at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The study examined 894 children between 6- and 24-months.

The main finding was that the more handheld screen time reported by the parent, the more likely the child was to have speech delays. Approximately 20% of those assessed had an average daily use of 28 minutes of screen-time on a tablet or phone. Each 30-minute increase in handheld device use was associated with a 49% increase in the likelihood of an expressive speech delay.

The study was correlational in nature, meaning the variables were assessed at the same time point and one does not necessarily cause the other. There are many variables involved in a parent’s choice to utilize screen-time, including stress levels and availability of alternative options (both of which could also affect language development).

Despite its’ limitations, the study offers additional support to the current American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations of no screen-time prior to 18-months and only co-viewed screen-use, limited to one hour until age five. Additionally, it may be a particularly interesting study for parents who are attempting to “treat” a language delay with an “educational” application. This is unlikely to be the best way to improve a child’s developing language abilities.

Objection Number One: Yeah, but maybe Those Babies Were Just Watching Crap

It is true that the study we are discussing did not address content. What if the participants were simply using the handheld devices to view or play with “junk”?

Previous research suggests that even under the best of circumstances, infants and toddlers do not learn from “educational” videos.

Several studies, both correlational and experimental in nature, have attempted to answer the question of whether young children can learn from videos. In a correlational study, researchers found that for every hour of baby media infants between 8 and 16-months viewed (per parent report), they knew 6 to 8 fewer words. This finding was further strengthened by a laboratory study where infants failed to learn object names that were presented via a television episode. In an experimental study, 12- to 15-month old babies failed to learn any words from an educational baby video designed to teach vocabulary. In fact, those babies who had significant exposure to the videos did not perform any better than babies who had no exposure at all.

particularly well-designed research study found that toddlers did not learn any more words from a baby video than a control group who did not watch the videos. Children either watched the video by themselves 5 times per week for four weeks, watched with a parent, or the parent was given the list of target words and told to naturally integrate them over the four weeks. Only those toddlers whose parents used the words naturally in conversation (and the child did not watch the videos) performed any better than chance on the vocabulary post-test.

Objection Number Two: Yeah, but my Kid Learned to Talk from a Screen

Many parents object to the screen-language-delay connection with objections that their child learned to talk from an application or a video. There is a chance that it may be true in their personal case. That does not negate the research which suggests the majority of infants and toddlers do not learn from screens and are more likely to have a language delay with excessive use.

However, it may also be the case that those parents who insist their child learned from a screen actually did not.  Parents turn to these applications and programs with a genuine belief and hope of helping their child. Survey studies indicate that parents do believe their infants can learn from DVDs. However, in a randomized controlled trial, families of babies were given either a popular baby reading program (that consisted of DVDs, flashcards, and books), or were followed without the use of any such products. Over 7-months of use, the babies did not learn from the popular product. Despite the results, many parents were very confident in the products. Parents want to believe that what they are doing for their children is helping them.

In the particularly well-designed research study discussed above, despite no difference between the baby video conditions and the control, the parents own preference for the DVD was significantly correlated with how much they believed their baby had learned from the video. I believe this is largely related to cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological idea that people do not like their beliefs and actions to contradict one another. Therefore, if they are showing their infant a video, they need to believe it is helping the child. Otherwise, they feel uncomfortable showing them something that they do not believe in. Faced with a choice of changing behavior or changing beliefs, it is always much easier to change beliefs.

Objection Number Three: It’s Just Correlation Research!

Most people who took a college statistics course learned “Correlation does not mean Causation!” It simply means the variables “hang together.” It can mean variable A causes variable B, variable B causes variable A or a third variable causes both A and B.

However, correlation does not mean causation seems to have been reinterpreted by the masses to mean that correlation is not meaningful and that is just not the case. There are plenty of things that we cannot experimentally study (excessive screen use being one of them). We cannot divide children up and ethically do something to group A that research suggests could cause harm. Therefore, correlational research becomes the next best thing.

What do we do in these cases? We rely on many different studies including and controlling for many different variables to strengthen the correlational nature of the research. We look at longitudinal research and cross-sectional research. But, we don’t say the research is meaningless because it’s correlation.

The research connecting screen-use with language delays can benefit from additional studies. However, it should not be dismissed. Taken together, the above studies suggest it is unlikely a child under the age of two will learn from screens. The newest study suggests children may also be at increased risk for a language delay with early screen-use. It is reason enough to proceed with caution.

As a parent, I think the aspect of the Hippocratic Oath, “First do no harm,” applies here. There’s a chance that early screen-use can cause harm. There’s no research suggesting going screen-free or limiting screens causes harm. In fact, just the opposite.

Well, My Kid is Fine. So, You Can Stuff It.

That seems to be the battle cry of those who have screen babies and feel this research was done to personally victimize them. Perhaps your child is perfectly fine. That’s great. The research is not about your particular child.

The research is done to develop best practices with children. The research suggests that screen-use is definitely not helpful for children under two years old and is potentially harmful (not just to language but also to budding attentional abilities, sleep cycles and physical activity).

What To Do

I spent many years in clinical practice. I can tell you a lot about what it might take to change behaviors and attitudes. But, for all humans (myself included), it is much better to tell people positive things they can do, rather than to tell them negative things they should not be doing. This is the basis for the S.P.O.I.L. system of activities that are promotive of child development.

If you want your child to talk, talk to them and read to them. The research is very clear that interaction with a caring human is the best way for a child to learn to talk. Your baby is not supposed to be quiet while you make dinner. Seriously, it is not good for them. Babies are needy. They want to be on you, watching everything you do and hearing everything you say. That is a very smart evolutionary feature. It will ensure your baby gets everything needed for proper development.

Yes, it’s inconvenient. Enlist help. Remember that it doesn’t last forever.  Additionally, know that screens backfire. Allow your baby to develop the ability to play independently and sustain attention and you will be rewarded handsomely shortly (by a child who can play independently for hours). Hijack your baby’s budding executive functioning with a screen and you will always need it. This is why parents of heavy screen-users bemoan “But, how would you get anything done?” They have a child who hasn’t learned (or been permitted to learn) how to entertain him or herself. The parents don’t realize they caused the problem they are trying to fix (or more rightly, the screen caused the problem the screen is trying to fix as parents are often victims in this cycle as well).

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