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The Digital Dilemma

An SLP's Guide for Navigating Screen Time with Kids


Screen Time… it’s all around us. It’s an amazing tool, but it can also cause potential harm.


Parenting is hard enough, but now we are all struggling to figure out -- How bad is screen time, really? How much is okay? Is it all bad? How do I know what to let my kid watch?


We are here to help! As SLPs we have some advice about the relationship between screen time and language development and what you can do to support your little one’s development without removing all the screens in your house.


The Official Recommendations


To start off, let’s review the official statement from the American Pediatric Association. They suggest the following guidelines for screen time: 


  • 0-18 months: no screens (except FaceTime)

  • 18-24 months: less than an hour

  • 2-5: one hour max

  • 6 years + up to 1.5 hours

This is good guidance, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what they should be watching or what kinds of screens they should be using during these time frames or how they should be viewing.


And, let's be honest for a second here, these time guidelines are great in a perfect world -- you know the one where your kids listen the first time and eat all their vegetables. But in the real world, a lot of kids are going to get some screen time before 18 months and sometimes get more than the recommended amount when they are over 18 months.


So what other guidance is out there to reduce the harms?


However old your child is, they are likely going to have some screen time, so what is the safest way to do it? And what ways will most support language development?


Littles Learning Language


Before we dive into how to best utilize screen time, let’s start with how our little ones are learning language. When children are 0-3, their brains are undergoing the AMAZING process of acquiring language. Two of the very important ways your child is acquiring language is through conversation and play.


“Conversation makes a language rich environment and play is the language rich experience.” (Angie Neal, SLP)

Conversation


Conversation Toddlers

Children pick up a lot when they are watching and listening, taking in the language around them. But what really spurs language development is the number of conversational exchanges a child is a part of. This starts super young. Right at the beginning of life! Picture a newborn cooing and a caregiver commenting on the coos and labeling what the baby is engaging with - this is early conversation! They are already learning how to engage in back and forth exchanges. As they grow and develop these back and forth exchanges with caregivers expand to include babbling, jargon, and eventually words and sentences. Look at this conversation between a 14 month old and her parent: 


Toddler: Babo 

Parent: Bubbles! Yes bubbles! Look, it’s a big bubble!

Toddler: signs MORE

Parent: More! More bubbles! Yes okay, here comes more bubbles 

Toddler: laughs and claps 

Parent: Yes, I love the bubbles! So many bubbles. Yay!


What a beautiful conversation! The parent is attuned to their child and noticing all of her communication, both verbal and nonverbal. When loving caregivers engage in this kind of interaction, the child gets to be a part of a back and forth conversation, even before they have much language.


And the research shows, the more conversational exchanges in which a child engages, the more language they develop (Romeo, 2018). Research has also found that the number of parent-child conversational turns at 2 years correlated with pre-literacy skills and measurable neural development in the language areas of the brain (Weiss et al, 2022).


So we know - the more back and forth exchanges that a young child is a part of, the better! 


Play


Play Toddlers

Now let’s talk about play. The foundation of perspective taking and executive functioning is pretending and engaging with other people (Neal, 2023).


Play requires decontextualization which is talking, thinking, reading, or imagining things outside of the here and now. And child-led play is the only way that children begin to build these skills, which are critical for a whole host of future skills and learning from self regulation, executive functioning, planning, empathy, social connections, reading comprehension, academic learning -- the list goes on! (Neal, 2023). Children are not born with skills of cognitive flexibility, working memory, inhibition, self regulation, and social problem solving - instead they learn them through play. And, of course, play is a very important opportunity to develop language. Play encourages children to act out familiar routines and stories and attach the accompanying language. Take the following exchange between an 12 month old and his parent: 


Toddler: Baby

Parent: Yes, here’s the baby, hello baby! Oh the baby looks tired. 

Toddler: Baby bath. 

Parent: Oh bath time for baby! Time for the baby to take a bath.

Toddler: Soap…. Ducky 

Parent: Yes, let’s wash the baby with soap, wash, wash, wash. All clean! Now dry him off with the ducky towel! Dry, dry, dry.

Toddler: Milk 

Parent: Ooh yes, then it’s time to have some milk before bed, yummy milk 


Here the toddler is using play to act out a familiar routine of bathtime and he is adding in language. He is practicing decontextualization to imagine his own bath time routine and talk about it, even when it is not happening. He is building language and those early executive function skills.


Play is magic! 


What About Those Screens?


So we know the number of conversational exchanges and play are critical, but what about screen time? (The topic of this article, right?)


Yes screen time.


So the real potential harm of screen time for our little ones is mostly rooted in the fact that screen time reduces both the quality and quantity of conversational exchanges and play between children and caregivers. This results in the child having fewer opportunities to develop and practice their language (Mustonen, Torppa, & Stolt, 2022).


Typically, screen time is a passive activity. The child is watching a show or playing a video game, but they are not engaged in any back and forth exchanges or decontextualized play. It is a one-sided activity. And we know language happens when two humans interact with each other. Children need to be active participants in a conversation or  play in order to learn language. Children do not learn language when they passively watch videos. Yes, even educational videos!


Language is learned through social interactions.

From birth to age three, all of a child’s learning takes place in social interactions -- it cannot happen while watching a screen. So the more time children spend on screens, the less time they spend in real interactions with other humans. And the fewer real time interactions with other humans, the less language and social-emotional development.


Research has found that children with more than two hours of screen exposure per day have speech delays, poorer vocabularies, difficulties with communication, and behavioral challenges as compared to children with less than two hours a day of screen time (Bibi et al., 2022; McArthur et al., 2022).


When you have more passive screen time, you have less active language learning time.

Oh no, so what do we do?


Don’t fret! It's not all doom and gloom. We know that screens are part of our lives and kids are going to have exposure to them. But there's a lot we can do to reduce the harm and optimize our child’s development and learning!


Not all screen time is created equal, and there are actually a few magic ways you can transform screen time with your child as a language learning opportunity.


For these magic screen-time transformation tricks, remember the Three C’s (Neal, 2023


Screen time language

Co-watch: 

We know, screen time can be a tempting tool for giving parents a break. And parents certainly deserve a break! A quick show can keep a child entertained for 30 minutes while you get dinner made. But the evidence shows if you want to make screen-time a language learning opportunity, then you need to watch the show with your child. Sit down and view it together. Make it a shared experience. 


Connect:

Use this shared viewing time to connect with your child. Cuddle, laugh together, sing along when a song comes on (we know you know the lyrics to Let It Go by now). Have emotional and physical closeness while you watch a show or movie together or play a video game. Use screen time as an opportunity for social and emotional connection. 


Converse:

Remember all we talked about with conversational exchanges and how important they are? Well use the show to kick off some conversational exchanges! Talk about what you are seeing, comment on what is happening, make guesses about what is coming next, explain which talking animal is your favorite. If you and your little one can go back and forth to talk about what you’re watching, you’ve created a language rich environment! This works great for those shows like Miss Rachel or Dora that ask questions and pause for the child’s answer, but you can also converse during shows that don’t have these call and response opportunities put in. Converse during the show, then converse after the show and talk about the parts you liked or go tell another family member about what happened and bring them into the conversation. Use the screen time as a kick off for rich conversations. 


It will feel hard to achieve the three c’s all the time. But strive for these when you can and screen time can be transformed from a passive non-enriching time to an opportunity for language development and bonding. 


But wait, there's more!


Even with our magic Three C’s, you should still think about the quality of your child’s screen time. Use the following guidelines for choosing the highest quality shows and media: 


  • Bigger and further away: try for larger screens that are further away instead of smaller phones and ipads that the child holds right next to their face. This allows more opportunities for the Three C’s to occur and makes it more of a shared experience rather than your child being “sucked in” to their screen (and not attending to you while they are viewing). 

  • Go for Sloooooow: Children's programming has gotten very fast and flashy with rapidly changing scenes. The length of time between scene cuts keeps getting shorter and shorter. For example, in CocoMelon, the average length between scene cuts is every one to three seconds! Imagine if the world around us changed every 1-3 seconds - that is very fast! Rapidly changing stimuli floods the brain with dopamine, leading the child to crave more dopamine and to have less dopamine production from less stimulating experiences, causing the child to get less joy out of everyday real life experiences and have more difficulty attending to real life activities. So look for shows that are calm, slow, and more reflect the pace of real life. Good examples are Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, or Puffin Rock. Slow and steady!  

  • Follow up with movement: When young children engage in screen time, it overwhelms their visual system. A young child seems very calm while watching a show, but actually there is so much rapid, bright, and intense visual information coming at the brain through the visual sensory system, that the brain actually shuts down the vestibular system (our sensory system that creates a sense of balance and spatial orientation) to accommodate all the visual information (Neal, 2023). Then, when the screen turns off, the brain has to fully reboot the vestibular system back online, which is not a totally instant or seamless process. This is often why children have meltdowns when the TV is turned off! They are in the throes of getting their vestibular system back online. So you want to help your child get their vestibular system back up and running by having them do something active after the screen time. Go outside, play tag, do some tumbling and wrestling in the living room, have a dance break - anything to get their body moving. So ideally, screen time is not happening directly before bed; try to have at least a little time for them to move their body before setting down for the night. 


Screentime is all around us and it can feel really tricky to navigate it as parents. There is also a lot of parent-shaming and judgement around it. So be kind to yourself - and do the best you can!


Hopefully these tips can help you navigate it all. 


Have more questions? We would love to help -- email us at info@talktimeboston.com or come chat over on our Instagram page @talktimeboston


References:


Bibi, Khan, Rasheed, Kulsoom, Musharraf, Ali (2022). Effects of increased electronic screen exposure and it’s relationships with autistic spectrum symptoms (ASD): a cross-sectional study in Peshawar. Pakistan Journal of Medical Research, 61:30-34. 


Mustonen, Torppa, Stolt (2022): Screentime of Preschool-Aged Chidlren and their Mothers, and Children’s Langauge Development. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 9(10), 1577.


McArthur, Tough, & Madigan (2002). Screen time and developmental and behavioral outcomes for preschool children. Pediatric Res. 2022;91:1616-1621. 


Neal, Agie (2023): Screentime, The Pandemic, and Development; What SLPs need to know. ASHA. 2023


Weiss, Huber, Ramirez, Corrigan, Yarnykh, Kuhl (2022). Language input in late infancy scaffolds emergent literacy skills and predicts reading related white matter development. Fronteirs in Human Neuroscience, 16, 922552. 


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