Handheld Screen Time Linked with Speech Delays in Young Children

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Taken from HealthyChildren.org, published 5/4/17 by Lead author Julia Ma, HBSc

New research being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting suggests the more time children under 2 years old spend playing with smartphones, tablets and other handheld screens, the more likely they are to begin talking later.

As the number of smart phones, tablets, electronic games and other handheld screens in U.S. homes continues to grow, some children begin using these devices before beginning to talk. New research being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting suggests these children may be at higher risk for speech delays.

Researchers will present the abstract, “Is handheld screen time use associated with language delay in infants?” on Saturday, May 6 at the Moscone West Convention Center in San Francisco. The study included 894 children between ages 6 months and 2 years participating in TARGet Kids!, a practice-based research network in Toronto between 2011 and 2015.

By their 18-month check-ups, 20% of the children had daily average handheld device use of 28 minutes, according to their parents. Based on a screening tool for language delay, researchers found that the more handheld screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have delays in expressive speech. For each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time, researchers found a 49% increased risk of expressive speech delay. There was no apparent link between handheld device screen time and other communications delays, such as social interactions, body language or gestures.

“Handheld devices are everywhere these days,” said Dr. Catherine Birken, MD, MSc, FRCPC, the study’s principal investigator and a staff pediatrician and scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). “While new pediatric guidelines suggest limiting screen time for babies and toddlers, we believe that the use of smartphones and tablets with young children has become quite common. This is the first study to report an association between handheld screen time and increased risk of expressive language delay.”

Dr. Birken said the results support a recent policy recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics to discourage any type of screen media in children younger than 18 months. More research is needed, she said, to understand the type and contents of screen activities infants are engaging in to further explore mechanisms behind the apparent link between handheld screen time and speech delay, such as time spent together with parents on handheld devices, and to understand the impact on in-depth and longer-term communication outcomes in early childhood.

Lead author Julia Ma, HBSc, an MPH student at the University of Toronto, will present the abstract, “Is handheld screen time use associated with language delay in infants?” at 10:30 a.m.

Please note: only the abstract is being presented at the meeting. In some cases, the researcher may have more data available to share with media, or may be preparing a longer article for submission to a journal. 

In addition, Ryan Howard, who writes for Smart Parent Advice writes See his full article here, ”

What Counts as Screen Time?

Your child’s age will shape the kind of screen time they’ll be exposed to. Frequently used screens include:

  • Time watching television
  • Playing video games on handheld and large screen platforms
  • Using computers
  • Working with tablets
  • Scrolling or gaming on smartphones

If you have elementary school-aged kids, remember, they’re likely encountering screen time at school as well. From television viewing to educational apps and smart boards, screens are now rampant in the school setting.

Your job is to make sure your children are accessing the positive components of technology without exceeding the recommended screen time for kids.

How Can Screen Time Do Good?

Before you throw out every electronic device you own, it’s worth noting that screen time for kids isn’t all bad. In fact, screens can provide a great opportunity for learning and development. Recent studies indicate that learning can be more effective through games and play-based activities. 

If your child is watching high-quality television programming, they’re likely experiencing interactive storytelling. This can also encourage learning processing to take place. Just make sure your child is staying within the recommended TV time for kids based on their age.

It’s no secret that hand-eye coordination can be improved through the use of video games. Educational programming is readily available and can help your child learn while providing entertainment. Used appropriately, there’s no doubt that screen time can be an asset to your child’s development and their childhood experience.

What Are the Disadvantages to Screen Time?

Along with the good does come some bad. This is what can happen if your child is exposed to too much screen time.


Many people focus on the non-physical implications when they talk about too much screen time. The truth is, there are real repercussions for the physical body when you spend too much time with screens:

  • Eye strain and vision changes: Excessive use of screens can encourage nearsightedness, while the blue LED lights used could cause eye strain.
  • Sleep disruption: That blue light used in electronics can also work to disrupt the circadian rhythm and disrupt your child’s much-needed sleep.
  • Weak musculature and poor posture: Less physical movement can lead to poor muscle development and control. Meanwhile, hunching over screens can also encourage bad posture and result in back and neck problems.
  • Obesity: Too much screen time can lead to a lack of physical exercise. This will encourage obesity and bring along with it weight-related health problems.

The physical ramifications for too much screen time are very real. There are also important non-physical ramifications your child may experience if they have too much screen time:

  • Inability to be patient: Screens generally provide immediate satisfaction. With access to many different touch devices, even something as simple as a click or turning a page delays gratification. Fueled with so many experiences that provide immediate gratification, the real world can be difficult to navigate.
  • Difficulty making and keeping friends: Not surprisingly, your brain is responsible for your ability to interact appropriately with others in social situations. The frontal lobe bears the brunt of this responsibility and develops substantially during the early years. Too much screen time can leave your child missing out on this development—and impact on their social capabilities.
  • Behavior problems: Children who partake in more than 2 hours of screen time per day are statistically more likely to exhibit negative behaviors. They may also be more prone to bullying behavior.
  • Desensitization to violence: Excess screen time has been linked to violent outbursts. Graphic and violent shows and video games can leave children feeling that violence is an appropriate reaction.
  • Academic difficulty: Children who spend more time watching television have performed more poorly on academic tests. Try to stick to the recommended TV time for kids whenever possible.

Screen time doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. Limiting screen time can enable your child to reap the benefits of using technology without experiencing the drawbacks.

girl with a tablet

How Much Is Too Much?

Now you know more about both the good and the bad that can go along with the use of technology and screens. Knowing how much screen time is appropriate for your child can help you strike the balance you’re looking for.

The right amount of screen time for kids will depend on their age. Generally, the younger your child is, the less screen time they need to be experiencing. Here’s the breakdown of how much your child should be spending focused on a screen according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • 0–2 years: Screen time should be avoided. Try to keep your child engaged in activities that will help them reach physical and developmental markers.
  • 2–5 years: Your child should be using screens for 1 hour of their day. This screen time should be used on high-quality, educational apps or children’s viewing programs.
  • 6+ years: Limit screen time to 2 hours per day.

Limiting screen time can be a daunting task. It is doable though, and the results can be incredible. Puzzles, board games, card games, and arts and crafts projects are all great alternatives to screen time. Having your child be a part of the selection process can leave them feeling more agreeable to the limited screen time.

While planning your little one’s exposure to screen time, remember to keep in mind that all screen time is not created equal. High quality, learning-based programs and games should always be chosen over lower-quality options. This can help ensure your child’s exposure to screens still remains productive and moves beyond basic entertainment.

How to Make the Most of Screen Time for Kids

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to remove screen time from your family’s life entirely. But you can follow these tips for successfully using screen time for kids.

  • Be there: Screen time doesn’t have to be alone time. Co-viewing and engaging with your child during screened activities can encourage social interaction and build relationships.
  • Set limits: Parenting is about doing what’s best for your child. Though they may not be happy when you set a time limit on their screen activities, they will benefit from those limits.
  • Pay attention: Fully vet how your children are using their screens. If you have young children, explore the apps they download. If your children are older, make sure they know about internet safety.
  • Be a good example: It’s likely you could do with a little less screen time as well. Go ahead and put yours away—you’ll be a great role model for your kids in the process.
  • Have technology-free spaces: Don’t bring your phone to the dinner table or switch the television on while your kids do their homework. Designate specific areas and times to be screen-free. This can help encourage your children to partake in other activities.

Striking the Perfect Balance with Screen Time for Kids

We’ve created a world where we’re constantly in touch and tapped into everything that’s going on. There are many good things—and many bad things—that go along with that. The one inarguable piece is that children are exposed to more screens, for a longer time, than they ever have been before.

Understanding what your ultimate goals should be for screen time for kids can help you make wise parental choices. These choices can help set your child up for the success you know they deserve and can achieve.”


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