Digital age: screen time’s effect on language learning in children

Digital age: screen time’s effect on language learning in children

Research at the University of Adelaide highlights how screen time can interfere with—and possibly aid—children’s early development.

Early language development lays the foundation for successful cognitive, social, and emotional functioning. Strong language abilities, which form through frequent communication between children and their parents, set kids up for close friendships, academic performance, and future career success. As technology pervades our homes, families are spending more time on screens and less time conversing—significantly diminishing children’s language exposure. New research from the University of Adelaide highlights how tech time is disrupting early language acquisition, but researchers suggest there are ways to use it to our advantage.

As part of her research at the University’s School of Public Health, Dr Mary Brushe led a study on the relationship between family screen use and children’s language environment. Her findings have been dramatic: ‘The more screen time children were exposed to, the less talking and interaction they experienced during the critical early years,’ Dr Brushe explains.

These effects were most profound when children reached three years of age: just one minute of screen time was associated with seven fewer adult words, five fewer child vocalisations, and one less back-and-forth interaction. The daily screen time for this age group averaged just under three hours. At this rate, children could miss out on up to 1,139 adult words, 843 vocalisations, and 194 conversational turns per day.

The research, conducted in collaboration with Telethon Kids Institute, studied 220 Australian families using LENA speech recognition technology to record more than 7,000 hours parent-child interactions and electronic noise. This method is the first to objectively record this data instead of relying on parent reports of the household’s screentime.

Dr Brushe says its findings raise concerns.

‘Early language development is one of the most important milestones a young child needs to reach to set them up for success and socioemotional skills throughout schooling and into adulthood. This study highlights how much screen time could hinder children from reaching their full potential,’ she says.

However, Dr Brushe remains optimistic about possible upsides to screen use and suggests that, if used selectively, it could have positive results on early development. For example, watching high-quality educational content, “interactive co-viewing” techniques such as like dancing to a theme song or repeating a show’s phrases, and talking to a child about their favourite game character to bring them into the real world are all beneficial ways to use screens.

‘The reality is that screens are here to stay, so it’s important to leverage the positive side of screen time and promote healthy ways to use it,’ she says.

‘But remember: the findings suggest making time for parent-child interactions without screens will be valuable for the whole family.’

What’s next?

Dr Brushe’s research aims to foster healthier relationships between people and their screens.

By combining the use of the audio captured through the LENA technology and coding, Dr Brushe will be better able to understand the quality of children’s screen time—what they’re watching, and how it’s affecting them—instead of merely the amount of screen time. This nuanced evidence will help researchers form strategies for optimal tech use going forward.

‘We will work with the community to support families with young children, which will assist in the development of interventions and updates to current screen time guidelines,’ Dr Brushe says.

Every discovery presents an opportunity to improve our practices in teaching children how to communicate.

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