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Will Screen Time Affect My Child's Communication Skills?

And what can I do instead?

When new clients come to see us for the first time, we ask them to fill out a case history form. This form helps us understand their child’s medical and developmental history and find out more about their family’s concerns. However, one question on the form often catches parents by surprise, and is the cause of sheepish confessions: How many hours a day does your child spend watching screens?

Are children spending longer each day on devices?

Having practised for nearly 30 years, I have noted an increase in the time children spend in front of screens. It has become acceptable in our culture that screens are a great way to manage children’s behaviour. When out and about we have seen toddlers with a phone in their hand while being walked in their pram and babies who are watching an iPad at a cafe. Screens provide a helpful distraction for children at home so parents can have some uninterrupted time to get through their to-do lists.

Is screen time bad for my child?

As we know, it’s not that simple. There is a lot of media information about the effect of screen time on children’s development. It seems we know what we should do, but sticking to the recommendations is oh so much harder.

The parents who come to see us often guiltily admit to allowing their children to watch screens for far longer than is recommended. They then add a layer of guilt by believing that the extended screen time is the reason why their child has speech and language issues.

From a speech pathologist’s perspective, we know that children need quality interactions with adults and peers to develop their speech, language and social skills. Children learning speech and language need to hear the words, sounds and sentences modelled and repeated over and over. Repetition helps their word learning and strengthens their vocabulary and sentence structure. They learn social skills by observing and interacting with others.

There is no doubt that when a screen takes their attention, they can miss key learning opportunities.

But what can I do?

We also know that screens are here to stay and that they are an important part of our lives. Balancing technology with extended personal interaction is challenging.

As speech pathologists, we frequently use technology to support our therapy practice. IPad apps and internet platforms have been a huge game-changer in how we manage therapy.

Here are some tips from an old speech pathologist on how to let your children enjoy some screen time whilst still developing their communication skills.

Use screen time as a reward for achieving goals.

Help your child complete the steps they need to be ready for the day. Use a visual checklist so that they can see their progress towards the reward. Once they are ready, then they can spend the remaining time in front of a screen.

Turn off all screens and eat at least one meal a day together.

This is the golden time to model quality interactions and develop your child’s communication skills. Even a 10-minute meal together is a great start.

Use parental controls on your internet and devices.

Turning off the internet by a certain time each day will go a long way to helping your child find other diversions.

Pack an activity bag for trips out of the house.

Have your child help you select what goes into it. Reach for the activity bag before you reach for your phone to distract your child.

Some things in your activity bag might include:

  • Blank notebook

  • Stickers

  • Colouring and drawing pencils

  • Pipe cleaners It’s amazing how creative your child can be in building something new

  • A treasure hunt list consisting of pictures of things your child can look out for while you’re out and about. For example, a yellow car, a particular shop, someone wearing red, a construction vehicle, a dog, purple flowers etc

  • Small toys - change these over regularly to keep them fresh

  • A book to read

  • Fidget toys to keep busy fingers distracted

  • A packet of wipes - I know this one sounds weird, but your child might just love cleaning and will find plenty of things to wipe down. The coffee shop will thank you too!

  • An empty bag to store new “treasures” in - the stone, bottle tops and the leaves they love to collect

  • And of course, Snacks. Small-piece snacks in containers with lids are great because they keep little fingers busy - opening and closing lids, picking up small pieces

Practise reflection together

Talk about the best / funniest / most beautiful / unusual / most exciting or interesting thing that happened or they saw while you were out and about. Screen time can begin after a moment of reflection.

Caption your day

Take photos throughout the day. Sit down together at the end of the day and look through your camera roll. Ask your child to pick their favourite one, then talk about the best caption for the picture. Talking together AND using a device is a huge win!

Use screens to connect with others

Video calls to family members are a positive way to encourage meaningful interactions whilst using a screen.

Make a video together

Use a device to film funny video clips together. Your young child will love the attention and then enjoy watching their performance again with you. Older children might like to teach you a new dance move, or you pre-record a family update to share with grandparents and other family members

For some more tips on using video calls for social connections, check out this blog.

Finally, please don’t use your child’s device for their speech therapy practice. Whilst we might use apps in the clinic to keep your child engaged, it is preferable that you work with your child face-to-face. Let’s save the speech apps as a draw card for the therapy appointment!

If you are concerned about your child's communication skills then it’s time to see a Speech Pathologist. At Newcastle Speech Pathology we work with children and their parents to assess the child's communication abilities, outline strengths and develop a personalised treatment plan to help them achieve their communication goals.


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