Put the Screens Away
By Mandy Alvarez, M.S., CCC-SLP, and
Melissa Marinelli Izquierdo, M.S., CCC-SLP
Kids and screen time is a buzzing topic these days, and for good reason! Screens are everywhere, and child development experts are increasingly concerned about their effect on developing brains.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no screens for babies younger than 18 months, and no more than 1 hour per day with a caregiver actively involved until age 5.
As speech-language pathologists who’ve seen a rise in language and social challenges alongside a rise in screen time, we go a step further. We recommend no screens until age 2, and no more than 30 minutes per day for older kids. One exception, which the AAP also notes, is live video chats. If grandma lives in another state, playing peek-a-boo during FaceTime is okay!
We know limiting screen time can be tough. Sometimes as parents we just need a break. We also get that screens are a part of modern life. Still, we hope the information in this article encourages you to not only limit screen time, but also engage with your kids whenever possible: In the car, during meals, before bed, on weekends. Playing and interacting with others are the main drivers of language and social development, and screen time can interfere with that crucial learning.
How Can Screen Time Interfere with Language and Social Development?
People often think of language as words, but it’s so much more than that. Language is a complex set of skills that allows us to communicate thoughts and ideas (expressive language), understand thoughts and ideas (receptive language), and navigate relationships and non-verbal communication (social/pragmatic language).
When a child is in front of a screen, she is missing out on the following important aspects of language and social development:
• Human Interaction
Most of us navigate back-and-forth interactions without too much thought, but it’s remarkably complex! Knowing how to express ourselves, listen, perspective-take, be flexible, and understand non-verbal cues are all skills we learned by interacting with others. Screen time, especially for babies and toddlers, can interrupt that learning.
• Peripheral Intake of Information
When we interact with the world, we take in information not only from what we see and hear directly in front of us, but also from what is happening around us. We learn to choose what to pay attention to while filtering out other things. Screens dictate where a child should place his attention, which over time can weaken the ability to pay attention to and filter what’s happening around him. Looking at a screen for a long time can also affect his ability to switch attention from one thing to another, which can lead to problems in school like having trouble copying from a board, scanning the classroom, taking notes, and even reading.
• Non-Verbal Interactions
A huge part of language is what we say with expressions, tones of voice, and body movements. Every human interaction is unique and dynamic, requiring us to constantly adapt. If we get enough practice interacting with others as children, we grow to understand how to read others’ intended messages and feelings based on their non-verbal cues. We also know how to use non-verbal cues to express ourselves. The more time a child spends in front a screen, the less practice she has with non-verbal communication.
• Creative Play
Many parents tell us they give their kids screen time because they’re bored. When we advise them to reduce screen time, we often hear something like, “What will he do if he can’t use his tablet?” Ideally the answer would be play, but play skills—like any other skill—are learned and require practice. Just as a child reaches milestones in other areas of development, there are also milestones for play. In order to walk, a baby must first roll over, sit up, scoot, crawl, pull-up, and cruise furniture. Similarly, play milestones build on each other. Introducing screens because a child is bored is likely to backfire, creating a broad tendency towards boredom because he doesn’t have the skills to play creatively on his own.
Screens are here to stay, of course, and it can be tricky to figure out when and how to incorporate them into your family life. The APP has a great tool, the Family Media Plan, which you can find on their website www.healthychildren.org.