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New tools, old rules; Limiting screen time and managing speech disorders

A child who spends more time on the phone and television may delay in developing speech.

Whereas this statement seems harmless, the real impact of digital technology is currently taking shape. Increased electronic exposure is hindering the development of proper language in children at the appropriate time.  Recent health research on excessive use of mobile phones and other screens like tablets and televisions has shown that children are becoming more reliant on digital technology as opposed to one-on-one interactions.

Whereas the impact of frequent consumption of mobile media on children’s health and well‐being is still an ongoing conversation, Dr Mbira Gikonyo, an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist believes that one-on-one communication and play with children should be encouraged every day.

A 2017 study interacted with 894 children between ages 6 months and 2 years for four years and found that the more handheld screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have delays in expressive speech. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics gave a policy recommendation to discourage any type of screen media in children younger than one and a half years old.

In a paper titled, ‘The impact of home computer use on children’s activities and development,’ Subrahmanyam K from California State University and colleagues observed that whereas the home computer use is linked to slightly better academic performance, it also showed that increased use of the internet may be linked to increases in loneliness and depression.

“Of most concern are the findings that playing violent computer games may increase aggressiveness and desensitize a child to suffering, and that the use of computers may blur a child’s ability to distinguish real life from simulation,” read excerpts of the study published in the PubMed journal.

On the language front, reduced parent–child verbal interactions has been associated with negative developmental outcomes, including language development, self-regulation and later academic achievement.

Can a child develop speech and later lose it?


Dr Mbira Gikonyo is an Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist and a Head and Neck Surgeon

According to Ear Nose & Throat Specialist Dr Mbira Gikonyo, a regression of speech and language in a child should be a reason to see an audiologist. An audiologist is an expert trained to test hearing. Children with on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder may have difficulty developing language skills and understanding conversations.Dr Mbira further notes that children with autism can have problems in producing and understanding speech and language. He cites the importance of a personalized approach when assessing a child on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss happens when any part of the ear is not working in the usual way. This could be a problem with the outer ear, middle ear, inner ear, hearing nerve or the Babies can be born with hearing loss, which is known as congenital hearing loss.

When testing for hearing loss in a child, some of the issues that the specialists look at include;

  • Is the child aware that he or she is being spoken to?
  • Does the child show signs of communicating in his own way?
  • Does the child repeat sounds?

In other instances, some children begin losing speech due to hearing loss that takes place when they had already began talking.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 60% of childhood hearing loss could be avoided through prevention measures. For a child, difficulties in communication may result in feelings of anger, stress, loneliness and emotional or psychological consequences which may have a profound effect on the entire family, the WHO notes.

Unregulated screen time is harmful to a child’s development.

The causes of hearing loss in children may include:

  • Genetic factors like congenital malformations of the ear and the hearing nerve
  • Conditions at the time of birth like prematurity, low birth weight, lack of oxygen known as birth asphyxia and neonatal jaundice.
  • Infections during pregnancy the mother such as rubella.
  • Diseases of the ear such as too much wax
  • Loud sounds, including those from personal audio devices such as smartphones and MP3 players which are used at loud volume for prolonged periods
  • Medicines such as those used in the treatment of neonatal infections, malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis and cancers

According to an article by Kimberly A. Gifford in the Journal of American Academy of Paediatrics, hearing loss cannot be diagnosed in an infant through simple observation because hearing-impaired infants achieve early language milestones such as smiling, cooing, babbling and gesturing at the normal time.

Hearing loss tests

According to Dr Mbira, an Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR) is a test that checks the brain’s response to sound. Another test is the Tympanometry that detects problems in the middle ear by testing the ear’s sensitivities.

Based on the results, the auddiologist will be best placed to advice based on the child’s hearing ability and henceforth recomment an appropriate treatment plan.

The treatment would include;

  • Hearing Aids-help the child hear clearly again
  • Cochlear implants
  • Speech therapy
  • Assistive listening devices

Dr Mbira concludes that it is always best to have your child checked if you notice aspects of speech delay or a regression of speech. “Trust your instincts. An ear-check up never hurt,” he concluded.


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