Love them or hate them, devices are all too much a part of our lives these days and kids are spending more time in front of a screen than ever before. Computers/laptops, tablets and mobile phones, television and video games all contribute to the time and focus children are spending in front of a screen. And with a vast range of children’s apps and programming now, it can be hard to know what the right balance is in terms of the amount of time children spend on them.

If left to it, my four year old could sit and play on an ipad for hours, until eventually saying ‘I think my eyes are squares now Mummy’. I wonder where he heard that from?

So, is it helpful or harmful? Does screen time have an impact on a child’s communication development? Should we be trying to stop our children accessing screen time at all?

It is hardly surprising that there is an increasing body of research into the effects screen time has on our children’s development. And from a communication skills development perspective, it does appear that there is reason to be concerned about how much time children are spending in front of the screen. A recent study from the University of California[1} found that sixth graders who spent just five days away from screens had an improved ability at reading human emotions than their peers with regular access to phone, televisions and computers.

And numerous other studies found that even just having television on in the background can have a significant impact on the development of important communication skills such attention and focus in play[2], vocabulary development[3], and quantity and quality of parent-child interactions [4].

Current guidelines from the American Association of Paediatrics recommend children 3 years old and over be limited to no more than 2 hours a day, and children aged 2 years and under have no screen time at all [5].  Yet 97% of Australian children having access to the internet at home and school, and the mean number of devices for the average home with children under 15 years of age being 7 devices [6], so it seems some screen time is probably and inevitability . Technology is here to stay, and our children will be growing up into an ever increasing digital world. So how do we limit the negatives impacts of screen time on communication development?

There are ways we can heighten the communication development opportunities for our children just by making a few changes to how we allow our children to engage in their screen time.

1.       Share the fun.

It is understandable (and sometimes necessary) to make use of a little child-free time while your child is engrossed in playing Talking Tom on the ipad. This is part of life. However, this significantly limits the opportunities a child has for social interaction with a person. Sharing in the fun of what a child is doing on an ipad is a great opportunity to model new vocabulary and engage together socially through joint attention to a game that is being played.

2.       Choose the apps with learning in mind.

There are so many fantastic language and speech targeted apps these days, it is easy for kids to think they are playing a fun game during special ipad time while they are learning new language skills or practising a tricky speech sound. Win-win! For ideas on apps with a communication focus, see here.

3.       Walk the Talk.

Children learn from the example we set. Many parents worry about the effect of screens on their children but then spend so much time checking their phones and looking at screens themselves. And it is not just the poor example being set, but also missed opportunity and an additional barrier for children to engage and learn from the language and speech models we provide. Take time to put down your device and spend a few minutes investing in conversation or play with your child. I promise the rewards will be worth it.

4.       Moderation, moderation, moderation.

Set limits on the amount of screen time your child can have and stick to them. Balance screen time with special play time together (both inside and outside).  Discuss a healthy screen ‘diet’ with your child and teach your child to make good choices around screen time so that they can learn to do this throughout their lives.

Screen time can be a motivating and positive opportunity for developing some specific communication skills, we just need to get the balance right.

[1] Yalda T. Uhls, Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou, Patricia M. Greenfield. 2014 Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behaviour. 387-392

[2] Schmidt, M.E., T.A. Pempek, H.L. Kirkorian,  A.F. Lund, & D.R. Anderson, 2008. The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children. Child Development 79 (4): 1137-1151.

[3] Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A., Meltzoff, A.N. (2007). Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years. The Journal of Pediatrics.(151). 364-368

[4] Kirkorian, H.L., Pempek, T.A., Murphy, L.A., Schmidt, M.E., Anderson, D.R. (2009). The impact of background television on parent-child interaction. Child Development. (80). 1350-1359

[5] AAP Council on Communication and Media (2010) Policy Statement-media education. Pediatrics, 26(5), 1012-1017.

[6] 8146 Household Use of Information Technology, Australia 2014-15. Australia Bureau of Statistics.