LONDON - Increased screen time damages a toddler’s ability to communicate with their parents, a study has revealed.

Researchers found that children aged between 18 and 36 months who spent more time looking at screens were less likely to hear adult words or engage in conversation with their parents.

The World Health Organisation recommends that infants aged less than two do not use screens at all, while those aged two should not use screens for more than an hour per day. However, the UK’s chief medical officers have disputed the recommendation, claiming there is not enough evidence to produce guidelines on screen time for children.

But fears have grown around children’s screen time increasing since the Covid pandemic, with a BBC survey last year finding that 79 per cent of parents were concerned about the amount of time their children were spending on smartphones, tablets and other devices.

For the study, researchers at the University of Adelaide collected data on screen time from 220 families once every six months. The data was based on screen use in the family home when children were 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36 months of age.

Researchers used three measures for a child’s communication: the number of adult words used, child vocalisations and back-and-forth interactions between a child and adult, known as “conversational turns”.

For every additional minute of screen time, a child aged three heard an average of 6.6 fewer adult words, spoke 4.9 fewer words and had 1.1 fewer conversational turns.

The researchers wrote: “For families who follow the current World Health Organisation screen time guidelines, the present results indicate that children could be missing out on approximately 397 adult words, 294 vocalisations and 68 conversational turns every day.

“According to the present study, as well as international estimates, 27 children on average are exceeding these screen time guidelines.”

Children aged three involved in the study were exposed to an average of 172 minutes of screen time a day, meaning they could be missing out on 1,139 adult words, 843 vocalisations and 194 conversational turns per day.

To aid children’s development, the researchers said that programmes and policies should be developed to “encourage families to use screen time as an opportunity for interaction with their child”.

A study published last year found that time spent on a smartphone, playing video games or watching TV has a significant long-term impact on a child’s brain function.

Researchers at the Education University of Hong Kong found that screen time led to changes in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for memory and the ability to plan or respond flexibly to situations.