Smartphones delay babies' language, and shorten their sleep

A Canadian study finds screen time is linked to an expressive language delay

The Cullen children, Joshua, Kayleigh, Leon, Amelia and Cara, who range in age from 16 to five: Their mother, Jessica Cullen, believes 10 is the best age for a child to have a phone

The Cullen children, Joshua, Kayleigh, Leon, Amelia and Cara, who range in age from 16 to five: Their mother, Jessica Cullen, believes 10 is the best age for a child to have a phone

 

These days everyone has a smartphone and many are addicted to it – checking for updates, surfing the net and sending messages (mostly inane) have become part and parcel of everyday life, particularly for the younger generation.

But while it is important that children keep up with the latest technology, research has also shown that spending too much time looking at a screen can be detrimental to their development.

According to researchers at the University of Toronto, toddlers should be kept away from electronic devices, as communication could be delayed as a result of too much usage.

The Canadian study included 894 children aged between six months and two years and results showed that by 18 months, 20 per cent of participating children spent at least 28 minutes each day looking at electronic devices.

Senior author Dr Catherine Birken says while “handheld devices are everywhere these days, parents need to ensure their youngsters do not have unlimited access to them.

“While new paediatric guidelines suggest limiting screen time for babies and toddlers, we believe that the use of smartphones and tablets with young children has become quite common,” she says. “This is the first study to report an association between handheld screen time and increased risk of expressive language delay.”

A recent study from University College London also found that too much screen time has a negative effect on sleep and brain development, with every hour a young child spends on a device being linked to more than 15 minutes less sleep at night.

Peadar Maxwell, senior child psychologist with the HSE, says it is vital for children to spend as little time as possible looking at a phone or tablet screen.

Developing brain

“When a child’s brain is developing it is important for them to interact with other people and with nature,” he says. “Staring, head down into a screen, does not facilitate the development of the nuances of communication such as facial expression and the emotional parts of language.

“While the literature on smart screen technology is new and somewhat limited, some studies have looked at what happens when children spend time looking at screens rather than real human faces and the jury so far is in favour of interacting with other people and experiencing nature. Screen time is another way to be alone, mentally away from your family and other children – and that’s not recommended for social and emotional development.”

The Wexford-based expert says while toddlers and young children need lots of exercise and activity to learn how to move, have balance and be co-ordinated, being still and reading books is actually more beneficial than reading from a device. 

“Too much screen time takes away from children being active,” he says. “But one study even pointed in the direction that real paper books promoted a higher level of reading for very young children than reading from devices – and concluded that the interactive components of devices distract the child from the written word and the story plot.”

Cyberbullying

It’s not just toddlers who are at risk from spending too much time online, as recent research has shown that children as young as 11 are looking at porn, suffering anxiety as they try to keep up with (mostly fake) posts about the wonderful lives everyone else is having and are subjected to cyberbullying and content that is far too old for them to deal with.

“The internet is a wholly different world for older children and teenagers,” warns Maxwell. “Most of the happy and glamorous posts on social media are really fake news. A sort of hyped-up version of what happened, making everyone look more interested and popular that they might actually be. That puts pressure on teenagers and children to be as beautiful, popular or daring as their peers.

“It also takes [the joy and spontaneity] away from being present at a party or event, as many youngsters spend time worrying about getting the perfect shot to share with the world.”

What age to allow your child their own mobile phone is a very difficult question and every parent has their own opinion, depending on their child and their situation.

Jessica Cullen lives in Dublin with her husband Paul and their five children, aged from 16 to five. She believes that 10 is the best age for a child to have a phone and doesn’t think there is any need to have a time limit on usage.

“The three eldest have smartphones which they got on their 10th birthday,” she says. “The two older ones spend a lot of time on their phones, easily half the day; Kayleigh (14) more so than Joshua (16), while Leon (10) doesn’t use it that much, just for watching YouTube videos or listening to music, so at most about three hours a day.

“I don’t think a time limit is needed if it’s being balanced right, mine don’t have any limit but if they were on it for an excessive amount of time I would get them to do something else. Leon plays with Lego and his toys a lot and Joshua and Kayleigh would spend a good bit of time outdoors with friends, so thankfully I don’t need to be strict on it.”

The mother-of-five says she has no issues with smart phones at all and so far has seen no evidence of any developmental or emotional damage.

“It could be just my children but the experience I’ve had with them using phones doesn’t worry me at all,” she says. “I don’t think it’s damaging as they all do well in school, have no problems with attention and there is definitely nothing wrong with their imagination.

Balance

“But again, it’s all about balance, I could see how it would be a problem if children were stuck to the phone every minute of the day and doing nothing else.”

Peadar Maxwell agrees but says parents should be aware of how much time their children are on devices and what they are looking at online.

“There is no use pretending technology doesn’t exist or ignoring benefits for parents and their children in terms of keeping in contact in a busy world,” he says. “But once your child has a smartphone there’s no going back.

“Always agree on usage rules before you give your child a new device, not afterwards. And agree on a curfew time so that their study, family time and sleep are not negatively impacted.

“The actual age [to allow a phone] depends on your routine, times of separation and your child’s ability to handle a device. Remember that you are giving your child internet access and all of the risks associated with it.”

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