1 minute of screen time = 7 lost words
The Sector > Research > One minute of screen time leads to seven lost adult words, a new study has proven

One minute of screen time leads to seven lost adult words, a new study has proven

by Freya Lucas

March 07, 2024

For every minute of screen time a toddler has they hear fewer adult words, make fewer vocalisations, and engage in fewer back and forth conversations with their parents, a new first of its kind study from Telethon Kids has found. 


Led by Dr Mary Brushe, the study saw researchers track 220 Australian families over a two-and-a-half-year period to measure the relationship between family screen use and children’s language environment using Fitbit-like devices to measure the amount of electronic noise and parent-child talk surrounding children aged between 12 and 36 months. This included noise generated by screens viewed by the parent and/or child. 


Children wore the devices at home for 16-hour periods at multiple points in time (when the children were aged 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36 months), with the devices using LENA speech recognition technology to reveal the number of adult words, child vocalisations and parent-child interactions that occurred during the recorded period.


“The results were most profound when children reached three years of age. Just one minute of screen time was associated with seven fewer adult words, five fewer child vocalisations and one less back-and-forth interaction,” Dr Brushe said. 


More than 7,000 hours of audio were coded by the research team to calculate the amount of screen time children were exposed to as opposed to other electronic noises. 


“We wanted to understand how much screen time children were exposed to during the early years and whether that interfered with the amount of language these kids heard and spoke in their home,” Dr Brushe explained. 


“We know the amount of talk and interaction children experience is critical for their early language development – this study highlights that screen time may be getting in the way of that.”


Researchers were quickly able to demonstrate that the more screen time children were exposed to, the less parent-child interaction they experienced during the critical early years. 


“Our findings support the notion of ‘technoference’ as a real issue for Australian families, whereby young children’s exposure to screen time is interfering with opportunities to talk and interact in their home environment,” Dr Brushe said.


The findings suggest that children whose families follow current World Health Organization screen time guidelines – one hour a day for children aged 36 months – could be missing out on up to 397 adult words, 294 vocalisations, and 68 conversational turns every day.


“We know, however – both from our own data and from international estimates – that children on average are exceeding these guidelines,” she added.


The study did not capture parental use of mobile phones in the presence of children, which may further impact. 


“If anything, we have probably underestimated how much screen usage – and associated ‘technoference’ – is going on around children because we haven’t been able to capture parents’ silent screen-related activities, such as reading emails, texting, or quietly scrolling through websites or social media,” the doctor said. 


Families who took part in the study did not know at the time of recording that screen time was going to be measured. This analysis was done retrospectively, after parents’ consent was sought.  


“This meant we ended up with a more realistic view of young children’s screen exposure because parents were not subconsciously altering their normal habits,” Dr Brushe explained.


Acknowledging that screen time was a ubiquitous part of daily life for most families, researchers emphasise that there are ways to reduce potential impacts on children. 


“Parents and family members do need to think about what their child might be missing out on when they choose to turn on a screen, but it might be that they opt for interactive co-viewing as a way to reduce the burden of screen time, or make a point of engaging in conversation when a screen is on,” Dr Brushe said. 


“This might include singing along with theme songs, repeating phrases or questions from the screen, and using the content of a show as a conversation starter after the screen has been turned off. 


“Interventions designed to support parents can educate them on high quality educational screen content that is age appropriate for their child and can support language learning and interaction.”


The study, Screen time and parent-child talk when children are aged 12 to 36 months, was a collaboration with the University of Adelaide, the University of Oxford, and the Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University. It can be read in JAMA here.

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