Is screen exposure harming our kids?

Smartphones and other hand-held screen devices are in such widespread use in 2017 that we barely flicker if we see an infant or child engrossed in some on-screen activity. 

This might be watching an episode of a favourite TV program, looking at stored photos and videos or playing games via various apps – some “educational” and just some just for fun. 

Parents’ smartphones are readily available and it’s easy to understand why they have such appeal to young children. 

As devices that occupy so much adult time, they are of intrinsic interest to children, who are, after all, such great mimics of adult behaviour. 

In days gone by, colourful toy plastic telephones were all the go, and infants who were still barely verbal would “chatter” away to an imaginary caller, much to the delight of the surrounding adults.

The rate of technology change in the last decade has been unprecedented, however. 

And parenting practices have been shaped by technology ahead of the capacity of researchers to understand the impacts (positive or negative) of screen exposure on young children. 

Inevitably, this leads to concerns about possible harmful effects of screen-time on the development of infants and toddlers. 

We know high-frequency and high-quality interactions with carers and other adults are critical in the first years of life.

These interactions promote socialisation, turn-taking, eye contact, language comprehension, vocabulary development, speech-sound mastery and the emergence of longer, increasingly complex sentences. 

We also know that time spent in play in the early years is critical to language development, as play develops the imagination and creative skills.

And it also provides enjoyable opportunities for good socialisation with peers and adult carers.

So, does screen exposure in the early years harm these important early developmental opportunities? 

The honest answer at this early stage is, we don’t know.

Recent research findings were presented at a Canadian conference suggesting that hand-held screen exposure in the first 18 months of life was associated with delays in expressive speech. 

The key word here is “associated” – meaning screen exposure might be linked with speech and language delay, not that it is causing it.

There might be some other, underlying social or family factor accounting for both outcomes. 

So, although it is too early to say definitively that screen exposure is harmful to children’s speech and language development, it is worth reminding ourselves of what we do know about setting children up for early communication success. 

We know children need to experience frequent high-quality language input from their adult carers.

This can take the form of general, everyday chatter – talking about the groceries being selected in the supermarket, commenting on the antics of other children and their dogs while visiting the local park, and so on.

It is also vital that parents read to their children every day and sing songs and recite nursery rhymes to them. 

All of this means, of course, that parents might need to put their own devices to one side for a bit more of the day.

Professor Pamela Snow is head of the La Trobe University Rural Health School in Bendigo.