What's the effect of screen use on the development of children’s speech, language and communication skills?

Magic Words Therapy - Frankie Paterson.jpg

By Frankie Paterson - Specialist Magic Words Speech and Language Therapist

As speech and language therapists we are concerned with anything that could be affecting how children's speech, language and communication skills develop. We have been wondering about how lots of screen time is affecting children. We are keen to look into this issue as, with millions of children now using tablets for several hours a day from as young as 18 months old, we worry that this could be having an affect on how many of their early cognitive skills are developing, including language development and the development of their attention and listening skills.

I recently listened to a programme on Radio 4 called ‘Why Can’t Our Children Talk?’.

I was very interested to hear on this programme that many teachers across the UK are voicing concerns about screen time. This echoes the concerns that I am hearing from the teachers I work with in schools in Luton. Many of the teachers who are voicing concerns have been working with children of 4 or 5 years old for many years and they are struck by recent marked differences in how children of 4 or 5 are presenting in terms of their language and attention skills.  Here's what one teacher had to say on Radio 4 about her own experience with children and screens:

 “Our children.. over the past 3 or 4 years, if you’ve got the interactive whiteboard on in the classroom they find it impossible to do anything apart from look at the screen… If there’s you to look at as the teacher.. telling them a story or there’s a screen, even if there’s nothing on it, they’re naturally pulled to look at the screen…They.. struggle with making eye contact because often when they’ve been hearing nursery rhymes.. it’s obviously been on a tablet where it’s been a.. brightly coloured screen they’ve been looking at rather than looking at somebody’s face”- Lorraine Boothe, Reception class teacher and assistant head at Chaul Lane Infant School. 

The Radio 4 programme featured a study that has recently been carried out on 900 toddlers in Canada. A clear link was found between language development and screen time in children under 2. It was conducted by Professor Catherine Birkin, a paediatrician in Toronto. She said:

“Children who used mobile devices.. had a higher risk of an expressive language problem at 18 months of age”

Apart from this one study in Canada there is no other evidence as yet about whether screen time is adversely affecting children's development or not. Much more clinical research needs to be conducted into this question before firm conclusions can be arrived at. However I think this question is hugely important as it has implications that we need to take seriously as a society