A paediatrician who has more than 40 years of experience told me once, “Parents came to me complaining about their 3- and 4-year-olds not talking yet. I did not find anything wrong with these children, except that their parents were not talking to them.” According to this doctor, the parents have a habit of using their smartphones to babysit. If the little ones get cranky, they would pass their smartphones to the children. It seems obvious; children learn to talk by listening and observing their parents and caregivers talk. Early speech exposure leads to speech proficiency.
The human brain is plastic. It keeps changing and adapting the older we get. But there are certain critical periods of a child when learning and growing take place at an extremely rapid pace. This rapid development occurs within the first 3 years of life. An environment that is consistently rich with positive sounds, sights, and touch is ideal for a child. The more your child is exposed to natural speech and a wealthy variety of words, the richer his vocabulary and speech skills will be. The later your child is exposed to such experiences, the more difficult the learning becomes. In fact it could turn into an uphill battle if this critical period is lost.
A study in Canada found a correlation between speech delays among young children and regular screen time. A total of 894 children between the ages of 6 months to 2 years participated in this study.
According to the study, “By their 18-month checkups, 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.”
It is believed that this is the first study ever conducted to look into the possible correlation between speech delays in children and screen time which is prevalent today.
Experts believe that young children are not able to understand the context of what they see on the screen in real life.
What does it mean for us parents? The implications are serious. Parents often agonise over which enrichment centre or preschool is best for their young children, which happens around the age of three and above. Although each child is unique and has a different development, on average, brain development peaks around age 3. It is time to look into how our children are spending their time before they step into preschool or enrichment centre that promise lofty achievements. If you the parent is not around, who is/are the adult(s) caring for your child? How would a normal day look like for your child and his or her caregiver(s)?
It’s back to the basics: Face-to-face time is always better than screen time. This study proves how harmful it could be if a child is regularly exposed to mobile devices as and when the parent or caregiver is unable to engage with him or her directly. Real, face-to-face engagement, human interaction with your child is priceless. Clearly, current educational apps do not meet the growing needs of children. If you have not been fulfilling the needs of your child, what will you do about it today?
Not all parents let their children use gadgets and mobile devices because they’re exhausted from work. Some parents think that early exposure is best because they do not wish their kids to be “left behind”. This study shows that even if an adult has good intentions, the consequences might not be something you wish for. Good intentions do not necessarily yield positive results. Let us be clear on one thing: A child has absolutely no control over his usage of a mobile device, even if he is throwing a tantrum and bringing the house down with his yells and cries. No one can point a finger at a child and accuse him of making the choice to use a gadget. It is the adult who makes the purchase, it is the adult who hands over the gadget to the child, it is the adult who has to be accountable for such decisions and its consequences.