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Parents' and kids' screen time use can delay vocabulary skills in young children, study finds

The research also found that vocabulary levels were lower among children who were not read to on a daily basis.

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The use of electronic devices by parents, as well as children, appears to have an impact on a child's linguistic development Image: Marja Väänänen / Yle

An abundance of 'screen time' can hinder the linguistic development of young toddlers, according to results of a study carried out by Tampere University Hospital (TAYS).

The study examined the development of speech and linguistic expression in kids at 18 and 24 months of age, and found that as parents' and their children's use of electronic devices increased — so-called 'screen time' — the kids' vocabularies decreased.

Following invitations from regional maternity clinics, a total of nearly 1,700 Finnish-speaking families agreed to take part in the project before their children were born. The data was collected during 2013-2015.

To reach their findings, the researchers asked parents to describe their child's vocabulary, word combinations, speech intelligibility as well as their finger-pointing and instruction-following abilities.

About two thirds of the youngsters had vocabularies of no more than 20 words, while around a third spoke fewer than five words.

Meanwhile, less than one third had vocabularies of more than 40 words and about 10 percent of the young children had 40 to 50 word vocabularies. The study's findings showed that children's vocabularies appear to be developing more slowly than before, according to Marja Asikainen, the chief speech therapist at the university's department of phoniatrics, as well as the study's lead author.

Screen time

The use of electronic devices by parents, as well as children, appears to have an impact on a child's linguistic development. Asikainen said their frequent use has the potential to limit the amount of conversation and play between parents and their children.

However, the researchers said that electronic devices and media can also be harmless or even help to develop a child's ability to function, if they have plenty of time for other activities and the content consumed during periods of screen time is chosen carefully.

The 'use of electronic media' included watching content on TVs, tablets or other devices.

Use of the devices could also be particularly detrimental for children who face other linguistic development challenges, the researchers found.

"The effects of the rapid increase in the use of mobile devices will be seen everywhere in about 10 to 15 years," Asikainen said, adding that the topic should be researched in more detail.

The study also took into account how much parents read and explore picture books with their kids, for instance at bedtime. Vocabulary levels were lower among children who were not read to on a daily basis, according to the study.

The study, which was published in the scientific journal Acta Pediatrics, was carried out in collaboration with the University of Tampere and THL, the Institute for Health and Welfare.

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