Screen time and technology - a speech and language therapist perspective

Screen time

The amount of time children in the UK spend online has doubled in the past decade (to an average of 15 hours a week in 2015, Ofcom).  Screen time and technology is often in the news, and can get a pretty bad press.  But is technology affecting our children's communication development?  How might TV, computers, tablets and phones be used for learning and for pleasure by our little (and not so little!) ones?

Does use of technology lead to poor communication skills/bad behaviour/social and emotional problems?

Despite the headlines, the research is actually not so clear – most studies are inconclusive about whether screen time causes these outcomes, and whether more screen time makes the outcomes worse or not.  For example, teenagers who play violent video games may also display more violent behaviours in real life, but it is not clear whether this is caused by playing the video game, or other factors – and it does not mean that every teenager who chooses to play these games will also display violent behaviours.

Research about screen time and language development is still patchy at best.  Whilst some research has suggested that in very young children (aged 8-16 months), increased viewing of baby DVDs is associated with smaller vocabularies, this was not found for the 17-24 month olds (Zimmerman et al 2008).  Very young children learn best by playing and talking with you in real-world activities; if they enjoy playing a shopping game on a tablet, get out your pretend food or line up tins so you can play ‘shops’ in real life, then take them shopping with you and talk about the food you are buying.

Technology can be used to provide opportunities for repetitive learning, reinforcing skills that a child has learned in school, such as phonics or maths skills. Many apps and games provide instant feedback for the child, which can be highly motivating.   Technology can be used to re-engage reluctant learners, as was seen into this research study into using touch screen books .

In January this year, a group of over 50 well-respected researchers in child development wrote an open letter to the Guardian calling for further research into the impacts of screen time before guidelines are put in place.  There is a need for further, longitudinal research into the types of technology use and their impact on the development of communication skills.

So what do you do now whilst we await clearer guidelines based on research?

Teach online safety

Online safety will also be at the front of your mind when you see your child on a tablet, phone or computer. The NSPCC has some great resources to help you keep your child safe online and on social media.

It's not just about screen time…

Consider what (your child is watching/playing) when, where and with who your child is using technology (LSE media policy project, 2016).  All of these are just as important as the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen.  For example, there’s a clear difference between a child playing a spelling game online with their parent at their side (talking to them about the letter sounds whilst they play), and a child watching YouTube videos alone in their bedroom.  When parents treat technology as "an interactive, shared experience, it can become a learning tool" (Barr & Lerner 2015, Guidance from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists).

Of course as a parent, you need to think about what your child is doing with the rest of their spare time, not just when they're in front of a screen.  A recent study found that up to 6 hours of screen time a day may be ok for a teenager as long as they are working well in school and also exercising.

Finally, look out for our future blog post for advice on how to find the best computer programmes or apps out of the huge number available!

Technology and Communication – the new frontier?

The market for apps, games, and computer software is growing at a faster rate than ever before.  With so many of these being marketed as ‘educational’, how can you work out which products are best, and what are the potential benefits of engaging with new technology? If this has whetted your appetite, has a few more ideas on how to use tech with your child to help their communication skills.

  • Speak to your child’s school Apps and games are constantly being released that provide children with opportunities to practice new skills in fun games that don’t feel like traditional ‘learning’ (e.g. ‘Sumdog’ and which some schools are using to provide their maths homework). Your school may be able to recommend specific games or programmes that compliment what your child is learning in school.
  • Look for programmes that are supported by research, so you know how effective they are at teaching the skill they claim to teach. has a table of apps that target a wide range of communication skills, and provides information about the level of research support for each app
  • Look for programmes that provide instant feedback to the learner (that they will sometimes accept more readily than a parent or teacher correcting them!), as this can motivate children to persevere with repetitive learning.
  • Check the content is at the right level of difficulty for your child by joining your child when they play. Talk to your child about what they are learning
  • Think beyond the simple app…  videoconferencing platforms such as Skype are helping children interact with friends, family and even listen to motivating speakers (

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist

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