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Is the iPad part of the problem? Speech delay

Updated: May 27, 2023

By Violette Godier-Ruess M.S. CCC-SLP

Parents are using the iPad for more than just a few minutes of peace and quite these days. I have recently had multiple conversations with parents on the topic of speech delay, and my latest experience made me realize I have a lot to say.

On a recent vacation, my sick 3 year old could only be comforted and happy to leave the hotel room with an iPad. We brought it with us for the plane ride and allowed him to continue using it because he was just really sick. When we returned I told my kids we are having a 2 week break from the iPad (which we never really use anyway because I really do practice what I preach around 90% of the time). After 24 hours they stopped asking for it and got on with their lives, playing together, asking a million questions, and arguing over toys. Business as usual.

I learned something from this trip, however. My 3 year old is fully capable of spending hours at a time on the iPad. Only looking up to ask for a snack or go to the bathroom. He barely talks to me, his father, or his sister during that time except to show us something he has accomplished or to ask for help. As a typically developing 3 year old he holds full conversations, has a robust vocabulary, and great play skills. He used none of those skills over those few days. Even though he was sick, he was very happy and content to be on the iPad, loved the games I had carefully chosen for him, and really loved the carefully selected videos on the you tube kids account I made him (science channels, sesame street, pbs kids, arts and crafts, dinosaurs). This endless content and easy access for him to do it independently seems great at first. Then you realize your child is sucked in; taking the iPad away causes a meltdown, and it's been really quiet, for hours, and we haven't really done anything together.

Now think of this. Your child is already speech and language delayed. They said their first words way later than your friends

kids. The don't answer your questions or follow directions properly. They have lots of meltdowns, even playing with their friends, because they can't communicate their needs to you. And as a family the iPad feels like it's your best friend. You enjoy peace and quiet, everyone is happy. But your child still isn't talking. The iPad time you are giving them isn't helping. They are not learning to USE the communication skills they have, or expand them; the game/ video information goes in, but it's a one way conversation. And in the meantime hours of potential communication opportunities to catch up to their peers, expand their vocabulary, and start having conversations are lost. The speech delay gap is getting wider. It will take them longer to catch up. Speech delay is associated with increased difficulty in reading and writing skills, attention, and socialization.

What can you do? Your child has a speech delay, you need to do what you can. Go cold- turkey. Start before they wake up in the morning. Don't turn the TV on, and hide the iPad away. Set out a few toys in an appealing way and when they get out of bed don't say anything about no TV no iPad, and don't say anything about the toys either. Let them discover it on their own. When they ask for screens, use an excuse: "maybe later", "it's dead", "I can't find it", "Daddy ate it" (ok maybe not that one!). Now say, "I want to play with you for 10 minutes," and play with them for 10 minutes! If you can't, ask them to help you with something, set them up with some coloring or playdough at the dinner table, or give them a bowl of water in the sink and ask them to wash some toys. The first few days will be a challenge in this new start without the iPad. I encourage you to go as long as possible, but at least 10 days, so that you can see a real change begin. This wont solve a speech delay overnight. But it creates the behavioral change you need to move forward. And don't worry, you can re-introduce it in a healthier way later. Science shows that the best (fastest) way for children to learn is through play with objects. Lets give them more of that!

Tips for healthier screen time:

  • Look for interactive content- e-books where they turn the page, games, activities that require thinking. ABC mouse and PBS kids are a good place to start

  • Less advertising is better

  • Videos about kids playing with their toys are mindless. Youtube is a rabbit hole for content like this and with each click on a next video they get further away from where they started and into some really strange mindless content. If you must use Youtube download the Youtube kids and created personalized accounts for your child and select what they can see. Don't just populate by the age groups you tube provides.

  • Let kids earn their screen time, within the limit. They don't earn extra screen time.

  • Limit how long they can use it to 30 minutes. Stick to this strictly and set an alarm.

  • When they are playing toys, turn off the TV in the background. Learn to be OK with some mess in your home. Your child lives there too. They are also capable of cleaning up but they cannot be expected to do it without help. I tell my 3 year old, " You need to clean up this mess, I will help you lets do it together." I tell my 5 yr old, " It's time to clean up, you can ask me for help if you need me."

  • When they are having screen time engage with them about it. Ask Who - What When- Where- Why questions. Talk about the characters or story, ask them about their favorites, see if you can take a turn playing etc.

I'm a parent too. I know that every family is different. Not every statement written here applies to you and your family. But if you feel that you are ready for a change in how you use screen time (specifically tablets and iPads) and reduce your child's speech and language delay then I can assure you this will help. If you can't commit to cold turkey start with not before school, not in your bedroom, not after lunch, not while you are eating etc. Find a way to reduce screen time, and your child will benefit today and in the long run too.

If you are concerned that your child may be speech and language delayed you should have a consultation and evaluation with a Speech Language Pathologist. Located in Red Bank, New Jersey, Hello Speech and Language Services LLC specializes in early childhood speech and language. Call 732-290-5158 or email for a free initial consultation.

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