Tech Matters: How does screen time affect your child’s development?

Wednesday , June 20, 2018 - 12:42 PM

Standard-Examiner columnist

Last week I did something crazy — I took a day off. My oldest daughter, Paige, and I went up to Park City to spend a girls’ day at the pool with my youngest daughter’s soon-to-be mother-in-law and her daughters. (The wedding is this week!) The surprise of the day was baby Jack who had his pool time and then settled into his stroller in the shade with a single baby toy. He played quietly and then dozed off.

Paige was captivated by Jack’s ability to entertain himself. She is a special education teacher who will be starting at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind in Salt Lake City this summer, after finishing a masters program in deaf and blind education. She has also been teaching special ed preschool in the Jordan School District for the past two years.

“What’s the secret?” Paige asked Jack’s mom, Beth. “No phones!” she said with a laugh. We all agreed that the no-phone policy (and no screens of any kind) was a smart thing to do, and Paige had research to back up our consensus.

According to research reported at last year’s Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting by Catherine Birken, a staff pediatrician and scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, very young children — between the ages of 6 months and 2 years — who use handheld screens before they begin to talk may be at a higher risk for speech delays.

Her team found that the more screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have expressive speech delays. (Expressive speech delays can be simply defined as talking as opposed to using gestures.) The average reported screen time was 28 minutes a day by the time a child reached the age of 18 months — about the time for a quick run through the grocery store where it’s common to see a phone in the hands of a baby while mom or dad ticks through their shopping list.

Each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time translated into a 49 percent increased risk of expressive speech delay. That’s a pretty compelling reason to find an alternative, non-electronic way to keep your baby happy.

That’s only half of Beth’s strategy. She has also restricted her phone time. From the time Jack wakes up in the morning until he goes to sleep at night, Beth uses her phone for calls only. To avoid the temptation of all of her favorite apps like Instagram, she put them in a folder on the second page of her phone — out of sight, out of mind. When the baby is down for the night, she can check her apps. She’s building healthy habits for herself and her family.

For older children, the effects of too much screen time are well documented. But it’s not always the kids who are spending too much time in front of a screen. In a 2015 global study of 6,000 8- to 13-year-olds commissioned by AVG Technologies, 54 percent of the kids thought their parents spent too much time on their phones. And 32 percent of those said they felt unimportant when their parents got distracted by their phones.

Lead by example. When children are around, put your phone away. In fact, it’s a good idea to put your phone away when anyone is around because no one wants to feel unimportant.

To help cut down on your own screen time, Apple will introduce a new suite of features appropriately called Screen Time this fall when it releases iOS12. You’ll be able to turn on Down Time, which will limit your phone to calls, messages and FaceTime by default. Use App Limits to limit how long you can use categories of apps like games, entertainment and social networking. You will also be able to have different limits on certain days. For instance, if Saturday and Sunday are devoted to family time, you can decrease the allowable time for these distracting apps. And if your family’s phones are connected, parents will be able to remotely set these same limits on the kids’ phones.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past eight years. She has designed and manages several international websites and now runs the marketing for a global events company. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at

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