It is increasingly easy to sit children down in front of a screen to keep them occupied while the adults work, talk or cook. However, too much screen time can seriously impede child development and may make it more difficult for children to keep up with the target language skill range for their age group.
How Children Develop Language Skills
Speech is one of the first and most important skills that children develop, yet many are developing it later and with less accuracy. The primary way in which children learn language is via human interaction. When children see their parents speaking, they imitate them. Their parents’ responses encourage them to continue, so they practice their language skills more during human interaction than during the more passive listening experience of watching a screen.
After early speech acquisition, the development of language skills continues to evolve. Children expand their vocabulary, become more fluent and learn to interact with words in a more active, imaginative way. Forms of play such as imaginative play and making up stories help strengthen children’s language skills as well as their ability to interact with others.
Written language is also a major component of language skill development, especially as children grow to school age. The best way for children to learn writing is through reading books and making up stories of their own.
How Screen Time Hinders Language Development
Screen time allows children to be passive. They watch the story on the screen play out, but they do not actively engage with it. Because of this, spending time watching a screen limits the time that children mimic their parents or learn to interact with others, so they start speaking later. It is also easier to learn the more subtle aspects of human speech through human contact. Trying to distinguish nuances based on the interactions of characters or cartoons is not the same as real life, nor is it anywhere near as effective.
The words and pictures on screens also move too quickly for imaginative and linguistic development. With human interaction, children can take their time to process exactly what is going on and start to explore it. Books are similar in that children can spend as long as they want on the words or pictures and take the time to process, engage and imagine what could be going on. These imaginative skills are essential as children learn to form their own sentences and ideas.
Screen time provides instant gratification that not only leaves no time for imagination, it also decreases concentration. When children become used to the immediate reward coming from the screen, it makes it more difficult for them to seek out more interactive rewards that require patience. For example, a child who spends a lot of time looking at a screen might be less interested in learning to read. The stories may be equally compelling but reading requires patience and focus—neither of which is required for watching TV. Decreased focus ability can make it more difficult for children to learn to read and write, among other problems as they transition into school.
Screens are both an addiction and a distraction. The more children watch screens, the more time they want to spend doing so. However, spending time on a screen takes away from the time children could be interacting with their parents, other children and books, leaving less time for language development practice.
Can Screens Ever Be Useful?
While screens can never be a substitute for real interactions, in moderation they are not harmful and can even have some limited benefits. Children under 2 should not have access to screens, and children between the ages of 2 and 5 should have no more than one hour of screen time per day. Older children can have more flexibility at the parent’s discretion but should still have limited screen time.
If a child must spend time in front of a screen, the parent can watch with them and use that time as another opportunity for interaction. They can talk to the child about what they are watching and ask questions to promote speech development and imagination. Although these interactions may not be as beneficial as activities such as playing with dolls or action figures or going to the park, they can keep children contained if parents need to multitask during the interaction for a bit instead of actively playing with them.
Children may experience limited benefits from screen time with parents such as an additional opportunity for interaction, but in general too much screen time can severely impede language development. The main source from which children learn language is human interaction. Screen time is a passive experience that both limits human contact and decreases the child’s desire to engage with others, leading to a delay in speech development. Screens also offer instant gratification, making it more difficult for children to focus on learning speech and written language skills. Their fast pace also impedes the development of imagination, which is important for writing, sentence formation and social interaction. Although screens in moderation probably will not harm children over 2, they should not form a major component of children’s daily lives.