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You May Be Giving Your Toddler a Speech Delay

Photograph by Twenty20

Having lots of screen time is fairly mainstream in households these days. It's not unusual to see a toddler playing on an iPad while mom and dad are having dinner, or the whole family gathered around the couch while everyone eats and watches TV. Though many parents question how much screen time is OK for their kids and try to adhere to the American Academy of Pediatrics' screen time guidelines, few might be aware of how screen time affects their child's development.

And make no mistake, it affects a child's development.

A new study, presented at the recent Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, found an adverse effect to screen time that parents may not have considered: speech delays.

Researchers found that, for children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years, the more time they spend on handheld screens (e.g. smartphones, tablets, electronic games) the more likely they were to experience speech delays in their development, CNN reported.

The study involved nearly 900 children and their parents, who self-reported the amount of time their children spent using screens in minutes per day when the children were 18 months old. Researchers then used an infant/toddler checklist to access the children's language development (also at 18 months old). This validated screening tool allowed them to look at a range of things, such as whether the child uses sounds or words to get attention or help, whether they can put words together, and how many words the child uses.

The results were, to some, quite striking.

"I believe it's the first study to examine mobile media device and communication delay in children," said Dr. Catherine Birken, the senior investigator for the study and a pediatrician and scientist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. "It's the first time that we've sort of shone a light on this potential issue, but I think the results need to be tempered (because) it's really a first look."

The study found that 20 percent of children were spending an average of 28 minutes per day using screens, while every 30-minute increase in daily screen time was linked to a 49 percent increased risk of what researchers called "expressive speech delay," meaning using sounds and words. Surprisingly, the study did not find a link between children's use of handheld devices and other areas of communication, such as gestures, body language and social interaction.

The problem remains that screens are ubiquitous. Birken, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, stresses that much more research is needed to determine if the device use itself is actually causing the speech delay in children. While her study shows what appears to be a relationship between handheld device use and communication delays in young children, further research is needed to look into what kids are actually watching and whether they use those devices with a partner or caregiver present.

'We do know that young kids learn language best through interaction and engagement with other people.'

Meanwhile, some experts are not at all surprised by this study's findings. Co-authors Michelle MacRoy-Higgins and Carlyn Kolker, whose recently released book, "Time to Talk: What You Need to KNow About Your Child's SPeech and Language Development," which explores how speech develops in babies and young children, thought the study pointed to the fact that the more young children are engaged in screen time then the less time they have to engage with parents, siblings and caretakers.

"We do know that young kids learn language best through interaction and engagement with other people," MacRoy-Higgins, associate professor in the department of speech-language pathology and audiology at Hunter College, said. "And we also know that children who hear less language in their homes have lower vocabularies."

For parents who are bad at policing screen time (which, unsurprisingly, is most of us) even if they know the iPad is a really bad babysitter, there is good news. It's important to stay informed while recognizing that devices are a reality today. The best way to ensure your child doesn't have speech delays is to interact with them, MacRoy-Higgins said, but also let go of some of the guilt.

"Every parent is going to need a device at some moment, a screen or a device, a tablet with their child at some point," said Kolker, a former reporter who started working on"Time to Talk" with MacRoy-Higgins almost five years ago. "It's just going to happen and you can do that without some level of guilt, but I think you need to know that those are effectively tools to help yourself perhaps in a down moment but they aren't tools that are really going to help your child."

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