Screen test

Evidence is mounting that digital devices can inhibit language development in young children. But teachers can help guide positive engagement with technology, writes journalist Jessica Willis.

Teachers in early childhood settings widely acknowledge that the number of children needing help with speech and language is growing, and many believe this is due to excessive ‘screen time’ from a young age.

Smart devices have become an integral aspect of life and communication for most of the world and, from an early age, children are exposed to screens via phones, tablets, computers and televisions.

As such, early childhood teachers are well placed to work in partnership with families to help make decisions around smart devices and cognitive development that are in the best interests of children.

This is why qualified teachers are essential to early childhood education – they are experts at ensuring young children are supported in their development while introducing them to tools and technologies that will assist them in their lifelong learning.

Time takes a toll

In a national survey, 80 per cent of parents indicated they were worried their children spend too much time on screens (Huber, 2019).

This may reflect a fear that screen time is displacing other aspects of childhood, such as social interactions with other children and nature play, which are critical to cognitive development.

This is referred to as Displacement Theory and has been a major focus of research since the introduction of television sets into households during the 20th century (Huber, 2019). While there are criticisms of this theory, research over the years has found:

  • Higher levels of screen time at 24 and 36 months are significantly associated with poorer performance in developmental tests at 36 and 60 months (Madigan et al., 2019).
  • Children exposed to screens in the morning before school are three times more likely to develop primary language disorders. When combined with rarely or never discussing screen content with parents, they were six times more likely to have language problems (Collet et al., 2018).
  • Among children aged eight to 16 months, each hour per day of viewing DVDs/videos was associated with a 16.99-point decrease in an index of development known as the Communicative Development Inventory (Zimmerman, Christakis and Meltzoff, 2007).

Viewing versus engagement

A caveat in some of the critical analysis of the literature suggests that much of the evidence for negative impacts is still derived from studies of TV viewing, rather than engagement with smart devices.

Children under three learn better from live interactions than devices so they have little to gain from screens in the absence of a parent, peer or teacher (Huber, 2019).

Not all screen time is detrimental to learning – the right combination of content, time and engagement can have positive effects on speech-language development.

Television viewing was found to reduce the quality and quantity of children’s play and child-parent interactions. It is associated with hyperactive behaviours, language delay, and lower executive functions, at least in the short term (Kostyrka-Allchorne, Cooper and Simpson, 2017).

Even if it is on only in the background, TV can make parents less responsive to children, and the same is true of digital devices.

It is important to be mindful of when and how these limited interactions directly contribute to language learning and skills.

Content and strategy counts

Many educational experts agree that not all screen time is detrimental to learning. The right combination of content, time and engagement can have positive effects on speech-language development. And with the right pedagogical strategy, smart devices such as tablets have a place within the early years’ classroom. Apps can provide fast feedback and many ways to learn and communicate with the world (Neumann, Merchant and Burnett, 2018).

While the benefits of using tablets for language development need more research, they have been found to facilitate positive social interactions; improve the foundations of word writing and story comprehension skills; and foster vocabulary acquisition and foundations of print knowledge (Neumann and Neumann, 2015).

Young children like using tablets because they are easy to use, touch-based, mobile, have engaging modalities and many different functions for example games, books, videos (Neumann and Neumann, 2015). However, there are three key factors to consider when using tablets and apps for language development:

App quality. Is it age-appropriate, interactive and have intuitive features such as tap, swipe and trace? Does it have clear instructions? Is it overwhelming or distracting? Is it culturally sensitive? Does it demonstrate positive social norms? (Neumann and Neumann, 2015)

Engagement quality. Is there good scaffolding by teachers or parents? Is there cognitive support? (for example, asking questions, discussing themes, pointing out and discussing words). Is there encouragement and technical support? (Neumann and Neumann, 2015)

Time quality. Time on devices should not be one size fits all, but depend on the child’s sociocultural, familial and behavioural context (Neumann and Neumann, 2015).

If screen time is strategically implemented in both home and classroom, smart devices can be beneficial to speech and language development and should be further explored by researchers as device uptake increases.

Early childhood education employers should ensure teachers have access to professional development and training in the best way to embed new technologies into early childhood education. When teachers are supported in their profession, it benefits every young child’s education and learning.

Tips for teachers

Neumann and Neumann (2015) offer a few ideas for integrating technology in learning:

  • Introduce the target literacy skill using non-digital resources and activities; for example, letter knowledge using letter magnets.
  • Model and explain the literacy content of an app, emphasising the link to the target literacy skill.
  • Actively guide students through the app’s functions, referencing the target literacy skill.
  • Encourage students to practise the skill with the app.
  • Share the activity with parents, explaining why and how to use the app and the target literacy skill.
Collet, M., Gagnière, B., Rousseau, C., Chapron, A., Fiquet, L. and Certain, C., 2018. Case–control study found that primary language disorders were associated with screen exposure. Acta Paediatrica, 108(6), pp.1103-1109.

Huber, B., 2019. Stop worrying about screen time. It’s your children’s screen experience that matters. The Conversation, [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 August 2020].

Kostyrka-Allchorne, K., Cooper, N. and Simpson, A., 2017. The relationship between television exposure and children’s cognition and behaviour: A systematic review. Developmental Review, 44, pp.19-58.

Madigan, S., Browne, D., Racine, N., Mori, C. and Tough, S., 2019. Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(3), p.244.

Neumann, M. and Neumann, D., 2015. The use of touch-screen tablets at home and pre-school to foster emergent literacy. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 17(2), pp.203-220.
Neumann, M., Merchant, G. and Burnett, C., 2018. Young children and tablets: the views of parents and teachers. Early Child Development and Care, pp.1-12.

Zimmerman, F., Christakis, D. and Meltzoff, A., 2007. Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years. The Journal of Pediatrics, 151(4), pp.364-368.