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The Effects of Screen Time on Language Development of Children

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Introduction and Research Question

Screen time consists of all electronic media accessed through television, computers, mobile phones and video games. Children are engaging more in screen time activities these days and high levels of screen-based activities in early childhood are detrimental to children’s wellbeing.

The recommended screen time based on physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines is zero screen time for children aged under 2 years, less than 1 hour per day for children aged between two to five years and less than two hours for children aged between five and seventeen years. Apart from these, government recommends parents limit their access to screens, monitor content of screens and to spend time watching along with their children.

A recent study conducted in Australia found that at twelve months of age, average screen time was 50 min on weekdays and 58 min on weekends, by 2 years of age it was 91 min on weekdays and 105 min on weekends. The screen time exposure exceeded the recommended exposure for children aged between 1 to 4 years in Australia. Hinkley et al. (2012) revealed that in Melbourne, Victoria children aged 3-5 spent an average of 113 minutes per day on screen media. This varies across Australian families with regards to children access to screens, different rules and regulations within homes.

Spending large amount of time in viewing screen media, less interactions, repeated exposure and age inappropriate content can interfere with child’s language development (Sousa, 2015). The purpose of this literature review is to determine whether screen time negatively or positively impacts young children’s language development. Therefore, the research question designed is – What impact does screen time have on language development of children aged birth to five years?

Literature review

Several theories have been proposed to understand about the impact of screen time on language development, some focusing on negative outcomes, others on positive outcomes, verbal interactions and repeated exposure.

A large number of existing studies in the literature support the association between excessive screen time and language delays. Lin et al. (2015) in quasi-experimental study of young children aged 15 to 35 months argued that exposure to television was linked with an increased risk for language delays. The exposure group with 75 children watched an average of 137.2 min per day and control group watched an average of 16.3 min per day. The results reported that language delay risk in exposure group was 3.3 times higher than that of the control group. Byeon and Hong (2015) in cross-sectional survey of 1778 Korean toddlers aged 24 to 30 months, stated that toddlers who spend 2 to 3 hours watching television were 2.7 times more likely to have language delays as compared to those who watched for less than an hour.

The cross-sectional and longitudinal study with a sample of 119 Hispanic infants and toddlers explained that children watched television for or an average of 3.29 hours per day from which 2.09 hours was child-directed and 1.29 hours was adult-directed. By using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, authors have recognized that infants and toddlers who spent more than two hours per day on media had delayed scores in the area of language development as compared to the children who spent less than two hours per day (Duch et al., 2013). Weerasak Chonchaiya (2008) also demonstrated that children who started using media before twelve months of age and watched more than 2 hours per day have six times more chances to have delayed language.

There had been numerous studies to investigate role of verbal interactions in language development. Whether use of verbal interactions with caregivers while viewing media can minimize the adverse impacts on language development. This longitudinal study examined 253 low-income mother-infant pairs and revealed that verbal interactions had positive impact on verbal skills (Mendelsohn et al., 2010). Similar results were also recognized by Tanimura, Okuma, and Kyoshima (2007) in Japan in an observational study. Children were provided 500 to1000 words for every 1 hour of watching television. The study concluded that adult and child interactions decrease when the television is on and the authors found that the reductions in conversations were associated with excessive amount of television watched and these decreased two-way interactive experiences with parents can impact language development.

Some previous studies have emphasized on the positive impact of screen time on child’s language development. Barr and Lerner (2014) found that screen time can be useful if two factors, content and context were considered. A longitudinal study conducted by Alloway et al. (2014) studied the relationship between television viewing and vocabulary skills. The study has suggested that apart from watching television, there are many other factors responsible for vocabulary development like educational books, home environment and parental interaction. Educational television viewing has a positive relationship with higher vocabulary scores whereas non- educational television watching can be corelated with lower vocabulary scores for children in assessments (Alloway et al., 2014). However, the results of the study cannot be considered as conclusive because no clear evidence was found. It could be due to the content not being understandable to children and smaller sample. Another longitudinal study conducted in United States, collected data from 51 infants and toddlers at 30 months of age through multiple sources. Although positive relationship was found in most of the cases, a negative relationship between television viewing and language development was also seen in three child specific programs due to complex content. This was successfully established that age appropriate and educational-based programs may have benefits for language development.

Some authors have also studied whether repeated exposure to infant directed media can help infants and toddlers learn new words or not. In cross-sectional study of children aged 24 months, it is argued that the repeated exposure to child-directed programmes does not result in learning new words among children aged below 22 months, however same children learn similar new words in natural environment. The repeated exposure only enhanced attention span for children aged less than 2 years.

Although there are many studies, the research about the effects on language skills from touch screen tablets remains limited. A survey conducted in United States of children from infancy to eight years of age to examine the role of touch screen tablets on enhancing language skills. The results stated that 52% children had access to tablets and among that 52%, 11% children used touch screen for 43 minutes per day. The survey also studied the use of e-books and literacy apps.

The media effects on language development are difficult to understand because different research methods were used to collect data and studies produced multiple opinions. There are few studies on the relationship between screen time and delayed language development. These are limited to observational or quasi-experimental methods, although the findings remained consistent in these studies. Studies have been conducted by many authors but the problem is still insufficiently explored and produced mixed results. A more systematic and theoretical analysis is required.

How screen media is used in current practice in early childhood education

The use of technology and screen media can support and improve practices in early childhood education. When technology is used appropriately, it can act as a tool for learning. Technology can also increase access to learning opportunities for all children. Technology help to build relationships among children, parents, educators and caregivers. When adults co-view with children and interact, technology can be more effective for language development.

Developmentally appropriate technology can help in early childhood settings. Screen time use should be culturally responsive and it supports learning in science, technology, environment and mathematics (STEM). With social interactions and guidance from educators when screen media is incorporated in early childhood settings in this modern world it can improve critical thinking and language skills. Children with disabilities can engage in content and educational activities through technology as it provides appropriate access to all learners. Educators can also increase communication with children from different language backgrounds with use of digital tools.

Early childhood professionals use technology to share contents with parents these days which helps to strengthen and build relationships for the benefit of children. However, precautions should be taken that technology does not decrease the meaningful face to face interactions between adults and peers. The adult involvement while using screen media can help children experience real life situations. Adult guidance can help make active use of technology in early years and is more effective when used together. Educators can use intentional teaching strategies and scaffolding. Early childhood educators must ensure the contents are appropriate, informed and up-to-date to ensure that technology has a positive impact.

Parents lack knowledge about risks of excessive screen time and must be educated about risks associated with increased screen times (Beck et al., 2015). When I first became interested in this topic for research, I had impression in my mind that all research would focus on detrimental effects of screen time on language development. But research has provided equal effects of screen time. Being an early childhood educator, I learnt that children can learn new vocabulary and language skills with appropriate media exposure (Wahi, 2011). The early childhood teachers can provide information to parents about age appropriate content of television and other media and how it can impact child’s learning. The second factor to consider is context where children can engage in technology in the company of parents, educator’s or caregivers.

It is mandatory for educators and parents to understand the relationship between amount of time spend by children viewing on daily basis, viewing age appropriate content and the effects on child development. The educators can encourage parents to co-view and co-use media and read to children for atleast 20 min per day. There must be restrictions to not use screens during family meal times with no media devices in child’s bedroom.

Conclusion

As an early childhood educator, while researching both positive and negative impacts of screen time on language development among children I learnt and would like to share in my field of work that screen time is heavily dependent on content and context in which it is used. The guidelines for parents and educators regarding exposing young children to media are much more complicated and require further research. The systemic review of literature support preventive measures and interventions to be taken to reduce screen time among birth to 5 years old children. In childhood settings educators can provide screen time reduction education to parents. Many parents are not aware of the effects of engaging for extended hours in screen-based activities or viewing content that is not intended for their age (Houghton et al., 2015). I personally believe that as educators, we must ensure children have limited exposure to screen media and must use play as primary method of learning for holistic development.  

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