What effect does screen time have on language development?

08 August 2017

The time in front of a visual electronic device is referred to as screen time which has become a common activity (or inactivity) in this advanced technological age. So why is this bad for our children (and particularly those with a hearing loss) when learning to listen and speak?  

Interaction is not exposure

To learn speech and language in the early years children need to be exposed to as much of it as possible. However, just exposure isn’t enough, there needs to be interaction too.

The dynamic interactions between people are vital to facilitate children’s learning of how to communicate functionally and socially, and build conversation skills. This is why sitting in front of the screen for an hour is not the same as an hour of interaction another person.

Educational Programming

It has been suggested by child development professionals that screen time should be extremely limited or non-existent below the age of two years. Much of the danger comes when educational programs are believed to be equal to one on one interaction. The truth is there has been a lack of evidence to suggest that even educational programs are beneficial for your child and surmounting evidence that shows screen time in general has negative effects on development. And unfortunately, it has been shown that the more a parent believes a show to be educational, the more likely they are to allow more screen time (Brown, 2011).

Getting Things Done

We know it’s not practical to say that children should have no screen time, sometimes that’s just not an option, sometimes it’s the only way to get something done that has to get done. The important thing to be aware of is how long you are allowing your child to attend to this form of entertainment. A 2011 study published in the American Academy of Paediatrics, found that children under 5 years of age were more likely to spend less time engaging with parents and siblings when screen time was the alternative. In fact, “for every hour of television that a child younger than 2 years watches alone, he or she spends an additional 52 minutes less time per day interacting with a parent or sibling. For every hour of television, there is 9% less time on weekdays and 11% less time on weekends spent in creative play for a child younger than 2 years” (Brown, 2011).

Screens and Sleep

Furthermore, there is evidence to show that there was an effect on sleep for children under 5 years of age. Research by the American Academy of Paediatrics stated that “although parents perceive a televised program to be a calming sleep aid, some programs actually increase bedtime resistance, delay the onset of sleep, cause anxiety about falling asleep, and shorten sleep duration.  Specifically, in children younger than 3 years, television viewing is associated with irregular sleep schedules”. And as you might expect, poor sleep habits will also affect a child’s behaviour, mood, attention and ability to learn (2011).

Children with Hearing Loss

It must be reiterated how valuable each day is for development in this early stage of a child’s life. This is particularly important for children with hearing loss, who were in many cases, born already lacking in auditory exposure due to minimal or no stimulation in utero up until the time the child received an optimal hearing aid or cochlear implant. Engaging in one on one play-based learning/teaching is considered optimal for children as it is motivating, and teaches social and pragmatic skills as well as functional skills.

In order to achieve developmental synchrony (“catching up” with hearing peers), it is recommended that parents spend more time engaging in meaningful interactions with their children and this is because the conversation between a parent and child is dynamic and experiential. In this context, when the term “conversation” is used it does not necessarily have to mean a discussion about one another’s day, it can also mean meaningful interaction involving turn taking and sharing in each other’s vocalisations.

So many opportunities for conversation arise within play-based situations in which a parent can choose to highlight certain words or phrases, repeat information as necessary and insert songs and rhymes into routines.  A person can talk back to their child providing feedback about their vocalisations, statements and questions. It is particularly important for a baby when establishing speech sounds that they are heard and confirmed by the caregiver who then imitates the sounds back to their child confirming, “yes you said that!”.  Conversation can also be modified by simplifying or adding variety and/or complexity to your dialogue. These are all things that electronic devices simply cannot substitute.


Although it’s challenging for parents to eliminate screen time completely, it is highly recommended that it is avoided before 2 years of age and limited thereafter.

That being said, not all time spent away from the screen needs to be spent with you giving your child your utmost attention, as we all know this can be impossible. Time spent away from a screen doing other things may also mean they have more opportunity to attend to other sounds and things in their environment (toys, puzzles, books, other people, etc). As you may have been told before, 90% of what children learn is learned incidentally – through watching and listening to the behaviours and interactions of others around them (Cole & Flexer, 2007).

The more we keep attention off the screen, the more we are providing opportunities for exploration of the real world. 


Brown, A. (2011). Media use by children younger than 2 years. Pediatrics 128 (5), 1040-1045
Cole & Flexer (2007). Children with Hearing Loss: Developing Listening and Talking. San Diego: Plural Publishing 


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