In recent years, young children and toddlers have been increasingly exposed to handheld devices. It’s become commonplace to see babies playing games on tablets, smartphones, and other technological devices, rather than with wooden blocks and plastic toys. This has led researchers to wonder, do these devices affect toddlers in ways different than more ‘analog’ toys? Recent studies point to yes.
The study, "Is handheld screen time use associated with language delay in infants?" was performed by Dr. Catherine Birken, MD, MSc, FRCPC, staff pediatrician and scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Birken relied on parent-submitted information and regular check-ups to monitor children’s development. From 2011 to 2015, Birken asked parents of children 6-24 months involved in Toronto’s research network TARGet Kids! to estimate how much screen-time their children had engaged in. Meanwhile through the checkups, Birken and her team conducted an Infant Toddler Checklist (ITC), a validated questionnaire for detecting expressive speech delay and other communication concern.
In total, when the 1077 toddlers were examined, parents reported that 20 percent of the children used mobile devices for a mean time of around 30 minutes. According to the study, “Adjusting for covariates, we identified a significant association between handheld screen time and expressive speech delay; this relationship was more pronounced among children who reported any handheld screen time.”
On thing to note, however, is that the study did not distinguish between the types of screen time that the children may have been interacting with. Kids can learn language from media, much like books, if parents are using screen-time in an educational manner. However, Jenny Radesky, a University of Michigan developmental pediatrician told PBS, “The science on this says quite clearly that children [24 months or younger] just don’t symbolically understand what they’re seeing on a two-dimensional screen.”
The study isn’t comprehensive enough to make definitive decisions about how much screen time (if any) that infants have, and the study concludes that further research will be necessary to make recommendations limiting screen time.