Could speech delays be related to TV watching?

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed toddlers and sign language.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I am a speech therapist, and a large percentage of the children with speech delays whom I treat are allowed to “graze” on TV all day. Are there any studies showing a relationship between TV watching and speech and communication delays in the preschool population?
-Serious about Speech in Atlanta, GA

A: Dear Serious,

We are not aware of many studies related specifically to speech delays, except for one study that suggests that “children with frequent television viewing…would have delayed development of meaningful word speech.” However, most of the media effects literature does not make a distinction between language delays and speech delays.

So if we look at the research that refers to language development but not specifically to speech, we can find more information that might also be related.  For example, babies seem to develop language far more effectively from people in real life than from people on screen. In one study, American children between ages of 6 and 12 months were exposed to native Chinese speakers in person and to the same native Chinese speakers on video. The infants who had real people interacting with them recognized and responded to specific phonemes, and those exposed to the video did not. What this seems to show is that human interaction appears to be critical in the complex process of language development.

But when the TV is on, parents tend not to talk as much to their children. And given that babies learn language from live people—particularly their parents!—having the TV on could be detrimental to that process. And although some research found no difference in word learning between babies who did and did not watch baby videos, it also found that the strongest predictor of number of words learned was the number of hours a baby was read to.

As a speechtherapist, you likely already provide parents with specific guidelines on how to help their children. Though the media effects research specifically on speech is not an often-researched area, from these others studies I described, it seems like adding media recommendations could be helpful anyway.  Perhaps you could recommend that parents decrease or eliminate TV watching and increase interactions around books.  Or you could suggest that when their kids do watch TV, parents should watch with them and look to the TV program content for new topics to talk about with their kids.  By giving them activities that include speaking to, reading with, and interacting with the child, you can help families experience the difference between learning from a person and learning from a screen.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician