Handheld screen use in toddlers linked to speech delays, study finds

The more time spent, the higher likelihood, researchers said.

— -- Young children may be more likely to have speech delays if they spend a significant amount of time on small screens, according to preliminary findings released by researchers today.

In an upcoming presentation at the Pediatric Academic Societies this week, researchers from the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto are expected to share their findings on their study examining the risks of speech delays in toddlers who use handheld devices.

The researchers looked at 894 children between the ages of 6 months to 2 years taking part in the research group called TARGet Kids! between 2011 to 2015. In preliminary findings released today, researchers found that by 18 months of age, 20 percent of the children were already using handheld devices for nearly 28 minutes a day. The researchers found that this group of children was more likely to score below the 10th percentile on the speech domain of the assessment questionnaires, indicating significant speech delays.

"Handheld devices are everywhere these days," Dr. Catherine Birken, MD, MSc, FRCPC, the study's principal investigator and a staff pediatrician and scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children said in a statement released today. "While new pediatric 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. This is the first study to report an association between handheld screen time and increased risk of expressive language delay."

After screening the children for language delays, the researchers found the more time a child spent on a handheld device the more likely they were to have speech delays. Every 30 minutes in additional handheld screen time showed a 49 percent increased risk of "expressive speech delay," researchers said.

Birken said the findings may mean doctors should discourage any screen time for children under 18 months, but that more study is still needed to understand the effects of screen time on speech development.

Dr. Lolita McDavid, a pediatrician at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, said the study was not at all surprising since she is increasingly seeing parents not speak to their children and instead given them device to keep them entertained.

"The parents aren't talking to them ... you learn your speech from parents," McDavid explained. The key for parents, she said, should be to talk and read to their children so the child learns more than just words, but also speech and conversation.

"What we're worried about is a whole generation of kids who don't have expressive speech," McDavid said.