Finnish study explores the language development of children left alone with screens
The Sector > Research > Finnish study explores the language development of children left alone with screens

Finnish study explores the language development of children left alone with screens

by Freya Lucas

November 14, 2022

The more time that preschool-aged children spend alone in front of a screen, the poorer their lexical skills and general language development will be, a new study from the University of Helsinki has found. 


The researchers examined the correlation between screen time spent alone or together with the parent, and different domains of language in children between 2.5 and 4 years of age with no neurological diagnoses.


They also investigated the connections between mothers’ screen time and the language development of children. In the study, screen time denoted any time spent in front of televisions, game consoles, computers, smartphones and tablets.


Researchers found that the more time that mothers spent interacting with screens, the narrower the vocabulary used by the children was, and the poorer their language ability was on a general level. A negative association with vocabulary and general language ability was stronger if both the child and mother spent a lot of time independently using devices.


“We were interested in how much the screen time of children or mothers explains the variation in children’s language skills when the child’s age, the mother’s educational level, and the birth order of the children in the family are taken into consideration,” said Doctoral Researcher Riikka Mustonen.


Children’s lexical skills (skills related to language structure, speech comprehension and the general language level) were investigated through various tests. A total of 164 children and their mothers participated in the study. 


On average, the children spent 79 minutes per day on their devices, of which 44 minutes were spent alone and the rest with the parent. The average screen time for mothers was 5.5 hours per day, including time spent at work.


Researchers found that using screens with a parent can be useful for a child’s language development if the parent and the child discuss the digital content with each other. Previous studies have shown that moments of joint attention are important to children’s language development.


“These shared moments may become less frequent if the child or parent spends a lot of time in front of a screen,” Ms Mustonen cautioned. 


In other words, the screen time spent alone by preschool-aged children should be restricted. Parents should also consider their habits in terms of whether screen time disturbs interaction with their children.


Researchers note that screen time is only one factor among many that can affect children’s language development, and that more research-based knowledge is needed on the effects of screen time. 


“It should be kept in mind that language development is also affected by many other environmental factors, as well as genes in smaller children in particular,” Ms Mustonen added.


The study is part of the LEINIKKI project, which focuses on the language development of preschool-aged children in Finnish-speaking families, as well as on the effect of background factors on the child’s developing language. LEINIKKI is one of the projects of the Early Language Development research group.


Access the paper Screen Time of Preschool-Aged Children and Their Mothers, and Children’s Language Development using the link provided. 

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