By: Rachel Evans, Speech-Language Pathologist

In today’s tech-savvy world, we are inundated with screens. From smart phones and tablets to computers and TVs, these devices have made their way into the fabric of our daily lives. For children, a myriad of apps, games, and shows are right at their fingertips to consume. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more parents working from home and kids being at home more often, using screen time for our kids can feel like less of a convenience and more of a necessity just to make it through the day. But how much screen time, particularly for preschool aged children, is too much? Are apps and games marketed as “educational” truly beneficial for children? Is there an impact on speech and language development we should be aware of?

Research has shown a direct correlation between handheld screen time use and a delay in expressive language development for children ages 6 months- 2 years. Each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time use for this age group resulted in a 49% increased risk for expressive language delay. These research findings are directly reflected in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations to parents for screen time usage in young children: no screen time at all for children younger than 18 months (with the exception of video calls,) and 1 hour or less a day for children ages 2-5. The best way for young children to learn language is through positive face-to-face play interactions with parents and caregivers, and time spent on screens is a missed opportunity for this sort of interaction.

While we know excessive screen time use can negatively impact a child’s speech and language development, we also know parents sometimes need a well-deserved break! How do we balance all of this realistically? Here are 4 helpful tips to keep in mind when navigating screen time with your preschooler:

  1. Make it interactive: As your child is watching a show or playing a game on a handheld electronic device, talk to them about what they see! Ask them questions about it when they’re done, or relate it back to a real-life experience they’ve had. Even better, sit and watch with them as you’re able and make the time a joint learning experience for you and your child.
  2. Keep it age-appropriate: Consider what apps or videos you expose your child to, keeping in mind their developmental level. A program with too many flashing images or loud music may be overstimulating for a young child. A TV show with a complex story line or an educational game teaching letters and numbers may be too advanced for a young toddler. Consider starting with programming that is simple in its content and progressing from there as your child is developmentally ready.
  3. Incorporate it into daily routines: Is your child throwing a tantrum whenever the TV is turned off? Are they constantly asking for more time on the tablet? Consider having set times in your daily routine for screen time use. Whether it’s right before lunch, in the car line when picking up siblings, or after nap time, having set times in the day for screens helps your young child know when they can expect to get screen time and, most importantly, when they will get it again later. This predictability can help reduce those angry meltdowns. Another way to help set their expectations and ward off tantrums is to give them warnings as the end of their screen time is near. A sudden and unexpected end may be difficult for them.
  4. Use parental controls: Is your child switching to different apps on your phone or tablet without your permission? Consider using the parental controls built into your device. For Apple users, Guided Access allows parents to disable to the home button, disable the touch screen on select areas of the screen, and set a time limit for each app. For Android users, the screen pinning feature prevents children from switching to a different app.

While technology can provide fun experiences for your child and some peace and quiet for parents, it is important to remember that your child learns best through interactions with others. For young children actively developing their speech and language skills, time spent in play engaging with parents or caregivers is always best! If you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, you can always reach out to a Speech-Language Pathologist in your area.