Chances are, you’re doing something else at the same time you’re reading this blog post—at least partially. Divided attention is just part of the program in today’s “always-on” environment, and being constantly connected usually means spending a lot of time in front of a screen.
Not surprisingly, our kids’ screen time is increasing along with our own. As a result, language delays due to excessive screen time are becoming a cause for concern.
Too Much, Too Young
When children spend a lot of time in front of a screen—especially when that screen serves as a virtual babysitter for the child—it makes sense to expect that there’s going to be an impact.
One study published in Acta Paediatrica (Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda, 2008) found that children who started watching television before their first birthday, and who watched more than two hours per day, were six times more likely to have language delays than children in a control group.
The Dwindling Art of Two-Way Conversation
What seems to matter even more than the amount of screen time is the degree of adult involvement and interaction with that screen time. Both the Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda study and another study published in PEDIATRICS (Zimmerman, et al., 2009) have shown that when adults guide a child’s screen time and engage the child in two-way conversation about it, the detrimental effect on language development can be neutralized.
Children require conversation to develop robust language skills, and they need adults to invite and shape that conversation in ways that help them think about the world and formulate the language that expresses their thoughts. Even reading to children and telling them stories—both of which are important—are not enough by themselves to support healthy language development.
Connected vs. Connection
In some cases, it may actually be parents’ screen time that’s the problem. For a variety of reasons—including job pressures and shifts in culture—parent screen time has started to encroach upon family time, displacing adult-child interaction.
In her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Catherine Steiner-Adair shares the stories of children and teenagers who are sidelined by their parents’ use of technology and who long for their undivided attention. The overwhelming message from the kids is that “it feels ‘bad and sad’ to be ignored.”
If kids aren’t getting the attention they want from their parents, how likely is it that they’re getting enough of the conversation that they need to develop important life skills—including language skills?
Language isn’t just a tool used to communicate at the dinner table or in the classroom; it’s a living part of who we are, and comes to life and grows in our relationships, our conversations, and in caring for—and being cared for—by others.
As hard as it can be to manage the competing demands of work and family—or to break the habit of being “always on”—there’s no substitute for listening, asking questions, and being interested in kids’ lives.
Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paediatrica, 97(7), 977-982. doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x
Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age . New York, NY: Harper.
Zimmerman, F.J., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J.A., Christakis, D.A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development. Pediatrics,124(1), 342-349. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-2267