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Screen Time and Speech Delays in Toddlers

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Screen Time and Speech Delays in Toddlers

Nov 12, 2023

Recent studies suggest a link between increased screen time in toddlers and developmental delays in speech and problem-solving skills. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, discusses what the research shows and provides practical advice for parents. Learn how to reduce screen time, and how to select high-quality educational content for those moments when screen time is appropriate

Episode Transcript

For a while now, we have been seeing an increasing trend concerning levels of developmental delay in toddlers. At first, we thought that speech delay and emotional developmental delay were due to the pandemic, but more and more research is pointing to a different cause — screen time, specifically, the amount of time young toddlers are exposed to a screen.

More Screen Time Equals More Developmental Delays in Toddlers

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics Edition reported that more screen time in 1-year-old children was associated with developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2 through 4 years. Those delays were specifically found in fine motor skills and personal and social skills. It also correlated with communication delays. It shows that there is basically a dose-response in delays, meaning that the more a toddler was exposed to screen time, the more likely they were to have developmental delays. 

Guidelines for Toddler Screen Time: Less is Better

The researchers cited both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics as recommending one hour per day of screen time for children ages 2 to 5. Limiting screen time is primarily to encourage young kids to have more physical activity and social interactions during critical development years rather than just sitting in front of a screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time before 18 months old.

Now, while those are the recommendations, any parent can tell you that's hard to do. I grew up watching PBS kids shows, like "Sesame Street," "The Electric Company," and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." There are several shows like that still out there. "Sesame Street" is still going strong, "Bluey" and Miss Rachel too. The one thing those shows all have in common is that they are educational. They help with communication skills, learning colors, shapes, and numbers, and they teach life lessons too.

Contrast these shows with what I see toddlers and preschoolers watching all the time in my office — videos on YouTube Kids where adults open packages of toys and play with them on screen. You just hear the adults talk, and you see their hands. Toddlers watch basically non-educational videos all the time, like animals who talk or short films that remind me of "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Active Playing is Important for Toddlers

There was one important point that researchers found. It wasn't so much that babies and 1-year-olds had screen time that caused their developmental delay, it was that kids who had more screen time seemed to have more delays in more areas. The one area that wasn't affected was gross motor skills. But all other areas seemed to be delayed. I know this reflects what I see often in the clinic. I will be talking to a parent about developmental delays when I'm doing the screenings, and if the child starts whining, the parent pulls out the phone and puts on a video. I've seen this in kids as young as 9 months old when the child will just sit there totally engrossed in whatever is on the screen, and that's what the study is talking about.

Toddlers and preschoolers are like little sponges. They need to have opportunities to communicate, learn language skills, and learn fine motor skills by putting together toys and coloring. And if they are just given a screen to watch, the opportunities for kids to learn these skills during their formative years are gone.

The bottom line is parents need to be mindful of this when they are looking for ways to interact with their children. They need to be present with their children and give them experiences, not just screens.