London - Allowing toddlers to look at electronic devices, even for half an hour a day, can delay development of their speech.
Children given handheld smartphones and tablets as "electronic babysitters" struggle more with language skills, research shows.
Even educational games with brightly coloured cartoons slow infants’ ability to learn words, experts say. The devices are simply no match for spending time with parents.
A Canadian study of nearly 900 children aged six months to two years found that every half-hour of handheld screen time dramatically increases the risk of delayed speech.
Lead researcher Dr Catherine Birken, of the University of Toronto, said the results support a recent policy recommendation by the American Academy of Paediatrics to discourage all screen time for children under 18 months.
The researchers found that one parent in five allowed a child of 18 months to use handheld screens for an average of 28 minutes a day.
When these children were tested for speech development, based on their vocabulary and sentence construction, every 30 minutes of extra screen time they were allowed was linked to a 49 percent rise in the risk of their abilities being delayed.
Dr Birken said: "The literature on children’s television time, which may also apply to handheld screens, suggest delays in speech development may come from children not hearing enough words being spoken or not interacting with their parents."
Literacy consultant Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, said: "The early stages of language acquisition need to be interactive. It is not just hearing the language – children need to read the facial expressions, body language, gesture and tone of their parents.
"We know that 75 percent of language is non-verbal and it helps children, for example when parents point out a 'doggy' as they say the word."
Padraic Monaghan, professor of cognition at Lancaster University, said: "Interacting and speaking to children is vitally important for language development – the more children hear, the better they will learn."