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Unspoken Words: The True Price of Toddler Screen Time

...increased screen time and reduced parent-child interaction...

The Allure of Screens

Move over, nursery rhymes and bedtime stories—a new player is competing for toddlers' attention, emerging from a screen. While screens can be a source of entertainment and education, a groundbreaking study has revealed a concerning drawback. For every minute toddlers spend captivated by glowing devices, they forfeit seven valuable adult words, make five fewer vocalisations, and miss out on crucial back-and-forth interactions with their parents. Excessive screen time is the silent epidemic that is reshaping childhood language development. However, parents can mitigate these effects by limiting screen time and increasing parent-child interactions.

Research Uncovers the Impact of Overuse of Screens on Toddlers

In a groundbreaking study titled Screen Time and Parent-Child Talk When Children Are Aged 12 to 36 Months, researchers from Telethon Kids, in collaboration with the University of Adelaide, the University of Oxford, and the Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University, meticulously tracked 220 Australian families over two and a half years. Using innovative Fitbit-like devices, they measured the electronic noise and parent-child talk surrounding toddlers aged between 12 and 36 months. These devices recorded the children's environment for 16-hour periods at multiple points, employing advanced LENA speech recognition technology to quantify adult words, child vocalisations, and parent-child interactions. The findings of this study are of utmost importance to parents, educators, and researchers in child development, shedding light on the impact of screen time on toddler language development.

Dr Mary Brushe, the lead researcher, underscores the long-term effects of screen time on language development, stating, "The results were most profound when children reached three years of age. One minute of screen time was associated with seven fewer adult words, five fewer child vocalisations, and one less back-and-forth interaction." The study, published in JAMA, amassed over 7,000 hours of audio data, providing a clear link between increased screen time and reduced parent-child interaction. These findings underscore the urgent need to address the issue of excessive screen time in early childhood.

'Technoference' is Impacting Family Relationships

The implications are significant. The World Health Organization's current screen time guidelines recommend no more than one hour per day for children aged 36 months. However, even this amount could substantially reduce language exposure, with children potentially missing out on up to 397 adult words, 294 vocalisations, and 68 conversational turns daily.

The concept of "technoference"—where screen time disrupts family interactions—emerges as a critical issue. Dr Brushe notes, "Our findings support the notion of 'technoference' as a real issue for Australian families, whereby young children's exposure to screen time interferes with opportunities to talk and interact in their home environment."

Other Areas Being Impacted

Beyond language development, excessive screen time reportedly has several other adverse effects. Concentration time is being reduced, leading to delayed or restricted language development. Relationships within the family are impacted as children become dependent on the instant responses provided by screens. It is becoming common for children to become addicted to their devices and act out with tantrums when they are deprived of them. The quality of thinking, creativity, and imagination may also be affected because children do not have time for reflection, rest, and daydreaming. Additionally, play is impacted as it becomes virtual, depriving children of the benefits of outdoor play. This lack of physical activity can affect hand strength, muscle tone, and posture.

Mitigate the Effects of Overuse of Screen Time

To mitigate these effects, the researchers recommend parents consider the quality and quantity of screen time. Strategies such as interactive co-viewing, where parents watch and engage with content alongside their children, can help reduce the negative impacts. Dr Brushe suggests, "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."

It's time to dust off the storybooks, poems, rhymes, and songbooks. Take long walks, observe nature, have playdates with friends, and spend time in the park. Above all, engage in sustained, meaningful conversations with children to enhance their vocabulary and conceptual development. There's nothing more captivating than young children's perceptions and ideas verbalised in the moment.

While screen time is ubiquitous in modern life, this and other studies underscore the importance of mindful media consumption and active engagement to support children's language development and overall well-being. The complete study can be accessed in JAMA for more detailed information.


Lucas, F. (2024, March 7). The Sector - One minute of screen time leads to seven lost adult words, a new study has proven

Brushe, M. et al. Screen Time and Parent-Child Talk When Children Are Aged 12 to 36 Months. JAMA.


Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of ‘Edu-Chameleon’. Lili-Ann’s specialisations are in early childhood education (birth to nine years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition.  She runs her consultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at


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