Lockdown affected children’s language, and socioeconomic status made a difference
Canadian children aged between 19-29 months from lower socioeconomic status (SES) families were the most impacted in terms of vocabulary development delays during COVID-19 lockdown measures, researchers have found, also making a link between language learning and screen time.
The new study, led by researchers in the Child Language and Speech Studies (CLASS) Lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga explored how COVID-19 lockdowns impacted children’s language development, building on work being conducted prior to the pandemic.
Priscilla Fung, a fifth-year PhD student, worked with the CLASS team – Thomas St. Pierre, Momina Raja and Ms Fung’s supervisor, psychology Professor Elizabeth Johnson – to build on pre-pandemic information, following the test group of 365 preschoolers (ages 11-34 months) and their parents with Zoom meetings and standardised vocabulary assessments.
“Ontario had one of the longest lockdowns in the world, which meant young children were at home more, but their parents faced unprecedented difficulties and had to juggle work and household duties, with no daycare or grandparents available to look after the kids,” Ms Fung explained. “Stress went up, but reading time went down as parents had to leave children in front of the TV for hours and hours while they worked.”
The researchers hypothesised the children’s vocabulary would take a hit as screen time was already known to be a factor that negatively affects language development.
“It does make a difference, though, whether the screen time was passive, like TV, or interactive like a Zoom call where people were speaking with them,” Ms Fung continued.
While the data showed that the fallout was fairly mild for most children, it found that 19- 29-months-old children from lower SES families experienced delays in vocabulary development – the same group that reported the highest amount of passive screen time.
Ms Fung said the study suggests those with higher income were able to access resources to provide enrichment activities that helped mitigate language delays.
“We are very interested in following up [with lower SES families] and hope to keep monitoring this group to see how they progress after this,” she continued, adding that early language development is known to be critical to later cognitive and literacy success, with delays linked to psychosocial and behavioural problems.
The research, Ms Fung said, should spur policymakers to pay more attention to children from lower socioeconomic families during times of crisis and stress.
“We hope society, especially the government, will be aware of these findings [and] continue to monitor children’s language development, especially in lower SES families,” she said, adding that the study “underscores the benefits of encouraging all parents to interact and read with their children.”
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