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More screen time for kids means slows language learning

Kids copy everything we do, including our relationships with our devices.

While doomscrolling on a smartphone certainly isn’t the healthiest way for an adult to spend their spare time, for young children screen time means missing out on many vital moments to develop their language skills, researchers in Australia warn.

During time spent in front of the tablet or console kids interact less with adults, taking in fewer words from their parents and listening to fewer conversations, a vital element to build up their own language skills a process which can consequently be delayed, scientists say in an article published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal.

Several studies have shown that it is key for a child’s language acquisition and socio-emotional development to talk to them and interact with them a lot at home, the researchers say.

However, many of those studies have focussed on the impact of the parents’ screen time and not the child’s.

For their study, the team led by Mary Brushe from Australia’s University of Adelaide looked at data from 220 families recorded every six months from January 2018 to December 2021 using speech recognition technology.

The recordings included both the screen time and the general language environment at home of 12 to 36-month-old children during an average 16-hour day.

The researchers found that every increase in screen time translates to a decrease in parent-child conversations, meaning the child heard fewer words by the adults in their household, spoke less themselves and took part less frequently in conversations.

The biggest impact of screen time in that regard was observed at the age of 36 months.

Even in families adhering to the screen time recommendations issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – not more than an hour per day for a three-year-old – kids might miss out on as much as 400 adult words per day.

However, according to estimates, the actual average screen time for many children is much higher.

The 3-year-olds observed for the study spent an average of some 172 minutes in front of a screen every day, meaning they lose out on an average of some 1,000 words directed towards them by an adult, the researchers said.

However, whether children who spent long hours in front of a screen actually have a smaller vocabulary and poorer language skills was not subject of the study.

Growing up in a lingustically rich environment is vital for early language development, the research team said.

While talking to children should be a simple and uncomplicated enough activity, making time for proper conversation often isn’t easy in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they added.

So while it’s unrealistic to call on families to completely keep their kids away from the screen, parents should instead be encouraged to use their child’s screen time as an opportunity to interact with them, according to the researchers.

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