The influence of the screen time of mothers on the speech development of children

Excessive use of smartphones and co by mothers of young children can impair, among other things, the linguistic and communicative development of the affected children.

In the past, it was just TV; today, there are numerous devices that accompany us everywhere and at all times, including smartphones. Many parents complain about their child´s excessive use of social media – many of them not taking into account their own role in it.

Children watch their parents and notice that they do not pay attention to their fellow human beings or surroundings, newspapers, or books. Instead, adults usually focus their attention on the electronic devices for relatively long periods of time, even when looking after children or infants.

A recent study from Finland shows that excessive consumption of electronic media, among other things, also inhibits the language and communication development of the children in their care. This study examined children without hearing impairment and special needs. The possible effect on children with hearing impairment, who have an increased need for support in the linguistic-communicative area, can only be assumed.

Scientific data on the harmful effect of cell phone use

There are numerous studies on the impact of media abuse in children and adolescents. At the Congress of the European Society for Speech and Language Disorders ESLA in May 2022 in Salzburg, Riikka Mustonen, MA and her colleagues from the University of Psychology and Speech Therapy in Helsinki presented study results which suggest that parents of young children should also keep their own screen time as short as possible!

The data from Finland shows the following: “If a mother spends a lot of time on smartphone, tablet, the computer or TV, a child will develop smaller vocabulary and poorer language skills in general. The cause for this is twofold: first, time spent in front of the screen reduces the amount of time the child can participate in the mother’s life.  Second, a mother has less opportunity to talk to a child about different topics that are interesting to him/her.

“We only included mothers in this study. But it would be really interested to investigate the effect of fathers´ screen time as well”, Mustonen notes.

“Technoference” – a new phenomenon

Even before the spread of smartphones and tablets, there were parents who only spent a little time with their children and did it mostly as a secondary activity. “But cell phones are particularly easy to have with you all the time. And everything can be done online: from reading news to shopping” scientists add. “Moreover, a child usually cannot see what a mother is doing on her phone – whether she reads the newspapers or prepares a food recipe. Thus, the phone leaves a child on the side as an outsider more than the other activities in her life.”

The interruption of one activity by a means of communication technology is called technoference. For example, the moment when a parent is playing with a child and suddenly looks at the phone. An international study of one technology provider included more than 6,000 children aged between 8 and 13 showed that more than one-third of children feel unimportant when their parents reach for their cell phones during a meal or conversation.  The effects on mental well-being and child development are obvious, including language development.

The effect expected to be even more evident in hearing-impaired children

The children who participated in the study in Finland had no hearing impairment, were normally developed and inconspicuous. “For children with hearing impairment, technoference and the sudden interruption of interaction that comes with it could be even more harmful, as they need eye contact and more time to communicate. Children who need encouragement to communicate particularly benefit from adults who keep their screen devices away while they are together.”

The study looked not only at the time the mother spent on screen for entertainment and communication, but also for work, study or online shopping. “I don’t think the purpose of use matters from the child’s perspective,” Mustonen explains. She also recognizes that one parent is usually at work anyway, and therefore absent. “On the other hand, a parent might check work-related emails from the phone even while they are playing with their child. That’s why we wanted to study the effect of total screen time – because it’s not always easy to separate that.”

The study is part of an extensive study on the development of communication skills in children. Data from 159 mothers and their children aged between two and a half and four years were analyzed.

Source: “Associations between screen time of mothers and child language skills” Mustonen R, Torppa R, Stolt S – Dept. of Psychology and Logopedics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki, Finland; ESLA 2022