Does your Child’s Best Friend Talk Back? The Importance of Socialization and Limiting Screen Time

On a recent trip to a Northern community, we spent some time discussing what was available for children to socialize.

Children are not passive learners of speech, language and communication skills. Sadly, they are not picking up much when watching Sesame Street or binge-watching YouTube videos.

Children are ACTIVE learners that require an interaction – the back-and-forth of communicating with a partner. They need to see how others’ respond to the way they speak and communicate.

Social learning is crucial for children to learn skills such as sharing, turn-taking, perspective taking, reading the social context, apologizing, clarifying, requesting, topic maintenance, and establishing context.

Peer interactions are important because children “fail” a lot in their communication with other children; much more so than when they interact with accommodating adults! As such, it is important to put children together with other kids that are near their age or skill level. Children learn a lot through the cause-and-effect nature of their transactions within the social context.  What that means is that children are continuously using language to give and take with others – language is a transaction where you are either getting or giving. As children give and receive, they learn which words, which tone of voice, which volume of voice, and which body language is received by others – and which isn’t.

Children learn a lot from observing how other children operate with language, and they are also closely studying YOU as an adult model. In children, their mirror neurons are continuously firing, allowing them to learn vicariously through the experiences of others. It is important for children to see how you interact with friends, strangers, authority figures, other children – you name it. The more diverse the experiences, the better.

Social opportunities such as day homes, pre-schools, extra-curricular activities etc. are excellent options for children to socialize. Additionally, these programs are often structured and adult-facilitated, which further enhances communication development.

I recognize that the above programs are not always accessible or affordable.  Watch for opportunities to interact with other children in restaurants, stores, parks and playgrounds, or Dr.’s offices. This may require you to step outside your comfort zone!

Prioritizing time with friends, cousins, or neighbours who also have children is also valuable.  Try to spend some time interacting with the children to encourage them to play together with a game or a pretend activity, to ask each other questions, to share materials, and to establish some back-and-forth communication. This is more desirable than “sending them off to play”.

Keep in mind that children are continuously actively learning and making sense of their social world. Be a good model and provide many social opportunities with peers as well as other adults. Be attentive and encouraging when your child speaks to build self-esteem and self-confidence.

Be mindful of the “passive” language exposure that comes from screen time. It simply does not help children develop language – they do not learn this way.

The current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics are that children under the age of 2 are not exposed to screen time at all, unless it is communicating through a video chat such as Skype or Facetime. For children under the age of 5, the maximum limit is one hour.

Digging in a little deeper, research on child development under the age of 3 shows that what’s ON the screen doesn’t matter – children don’t learn much of whatever they are attending to.

Worse, there are negative effects from “background tv” – if the TV is simply “on” in the room where the child is playing. One study found that children don’t play as intently or as long, and there were noticeable differences between parent-child interactions.

Over-limit screen time is associated with delays in vocabulary growth, speech, and expressive language. Recent research found that every additional half hour of screen time over recommended times increased a child’s risk for expressive language delays by 49 percent!

Additionally, over-limit screen time is associated with sleep disruption, inactivity and obesity, inattention, difficulty with social-emotional regulation, and aggression.

The evidence is mounting!  Spend more time with people. Find opportunities to engage with diverse groups and ages of people.  Advocate for social programs, join a group, or create your own with some people that have common interests or children near your age! When gathered with others, turn off background screens. Attend to your child and encourage them to speak. Be responsive and interactive when they do speak.  Restrict screen time under the age of 2, and limit screen time under the age of 5.

Also, check our video on Socialization and Screen Time.