Tablets and phones linked to speech delays

A new study has found the more time toddlers play with tablets and smartphones, the more likely they are to have delayed language development. Photo: Mark Makela, Getty Images

As our government prepares to spend $6 million on extra support for preschoolers with speech delays, a new study links handheld devices with an increased risk of delayed language development, writes Lynn Grieveson.

The more time toddlers spend playing with handheld devices such as smartphones, tablets and electronic games, the more likely they are to have speech delays, a new study has found.

Canadian researchers studied 894 children aged between 6 months and two years and concluded increased time spent with handheld screens appeared to result in a higher risk of expressive speech delay.

Their research was presented to the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Francisco on Saturday. It showed that, although 69 percent of the Toronto children in the study did not use any handheld screens at 18 months, another 20 percent of them spent an average of 28 minutes a day on ipads, phones and other handheld devices.

The study found for every extra 30 minutes a day the children spent on these screens, there was a 49 percent increased risk of delayed speech. Children with expressive speech delay are slow to start to speak and/or to develop vocabulary and to speak in full sentences.

There appeared to be no link between the amount of time on handheld screens and delays in other communication such as social interaction, body language or gestures, the researchers said.

The researchers adjusted for the amount of time the toddlers' parents were spending on their own phones, as well as for family income, mother's education and infant temperament - and the amount of time the children spent watching other non-handheld screens such as TV.

Dr. Catherine Birken, the study's principal investigator and a paediatrician and scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children, said the results supported a recent policy recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics to discourage any type of screen media in children younger than 18 months.

She said more research was needed to understand the apparent link as well as the impact on "longer-term communication outcomes".

$6 million for speech delays

The release of the research came a few days after Prime Minister Bill English announced the government's planned Social Investment Package (part of the upcoming Budget) will include $6m to help children with communication issues.

In a pre-Budget speech to Business NZ last week, English said the money would be used for "targeted and specialist support" for three and four year olds with speech delays "to prevent these children from turning up to school unable to communicate properly".

"Without these skills, they cannot learn and participate as well as other children.

"This ... is a small group of children who do come to school not being able to talk much, let alone write ... and the long term costs associated with this quite small group are very high," English said.

Pointing to the Dunedin longitudinal study, which he said the government was "taking advice directly from ... as to how and where to apply our public resource", English said spending money on children with speech delay would benefit everyone, with a "long-run payoff" from improved outcomes for the children - and because "all our kids will get a better education when every child can behave and learn."

The package also includes $34.7m to support more children with behavioural issues, and $28.1m to expand the Family Start intensive home visiting programme.

The Australian Centre of Research Excellence in Child Language says language impairment has "persistent and far-reaching consequences". Its policy brief on social disadvantage and language delay says "while some children outgrow their language delay, for many others it appears to have a detectable impact well into adulthood, not just on subsequent language skills but on literacy, quality of life, mental health and life chances generally"

It also reports the findings of the UK's Millennium Cohort study of 18,000 children which found children from the most socially and economically disadvantaged homes were twice as likely to have language delay.