In today’s increasingly digitised landscape, it’s nigh-impossible to escape the harsh white light emanating from the screens of electronic displays. It’s harder than ever before for the kids of today not to get exposed to internet-connected gizmos from a tender young age. Unless they’re living off-grid, that is.
It’s something that speech and language therapist Ng Jia Yue expressed concerns about with AsiaOne. A senior specialist at SBCC Child Development Centre, the therapist is familiar with how increased screen time can contribute to behavioural problems in young children — delays in the development of speech and language, in particular.
“Language delay refers to the difficulties a child has in understanding what others say and/or communicating with others,” she explained. Speech delay, on the other hand, refers to the difficulties a child has in producing speech sounds accurately, making the child difficult to understand.
According to Ng, symptoms include (and are not limited to) being unable to simply convey their needs, unable to talk by two-years-old, having poor pronunciation of words, and with a preference for gestures instead of speech.
“Some children may also show behavioural problems as they are frustrated when they are unable to express themselves properly,” she mentioned.
With Singapore's massive internet penetration and mobile app usage rates, should parents here pay more attention to the time spent by their kids with devices? The answer is a resounding yes, obviously. Read on below to see what Ng has to say about weaning children off screens.
How are these delays linked to increased screen time?
A study has revealed that for children between ages six and 24 months, each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time is linked to a 49 per cent increased risk of developing expressive speech delays. This means that the ability to communicate using words and sentences may be delayed.
Particularly within Singapore, a large proportion of Singaporean children are using screen devices and screen time is on the rise, from 60 to 120 minutes among children between the ages of six months and 24 months. This is significantly higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines.
Studies suggest that excessive screen time is linked to speech and language delays because face-to-face social interaction is vital to the development of language and other skills. Spending time on the screen may lead to less time for play and social interaction. So, there are fewer opportunities for developing important foundational language skills such as turn-taking.
Screen-based interaction is not an effective substitute for interpersonal interaction and stifles the child’s ability to develop communication skills, pick up vocabulary, and gain confidence in expressing themselves.
Do late talkers eventually catch up with their peers?
Between 70 to 80 per cent of late talkers seem to catch up with peers by school-going age. These children are sometimes referred to as "late bloomers" because they appear to catch up with peers eventually.
However, research has shown that these children may still continue to have difficulties in some language and literacy skills (such as reading, writing and listening comprehension), some skills related to language (such as social skills, planning and organising information, perspective taking) and how the brain processes speech.
There are also the 20 to 30 per cent of late talkers who do not grow out of their language delay. Hence, if a language delay is suspected, it is important to seek the advice of a speech-language therapist to determine if intervention is necessary.
How should screen time be handled?
Parents should limit their child’s screen time based on their needs and ensure that screen time does not affect their sleep and daily activities.
The World Health Organisation recommends controlled screen time for children under five. Namely:
- Watching screened devices is not recommended for children aged one-year-old and below.
- No more than one hour of screen time per day, for children aged two to four years old.
Any screen time given to children should also be curated and supervised by parents. Parents can also help build on what they have watched by discussing what their child has watched, such as discussing what happened in the video and helping children to relate it to real life.
However, more time should still be allocated for children to be engaged in active play or interactions.
What are some methods parents can use to nurture their children’s speech and language development?
Parents should always try to engage with their children through play, toys, verbal communication or conversations, reading books, and hands-on activities instead of electronic gadgets. This personal interaction will significantly help develop the child’s cognitive and language skills, as well as develop sensorimotor and visual-motor skills.
As the child gets older, it’s also important to sustain the interaction and communication by sharing in the child’s interests and engaging with the child through their interests. This helps to build the child’s confidence in expressing themselves and communicating with others.