Lack of parents-child quality time, shift from joint family to nuclear family and early and long exposure to digital devices or mobile screen time have become common factors delaying speech stimulation in young children below three years in this age of technology, according to experts.
Prevalence of exposure to mobile screens among children below three years of age tends to increase within a decade and have become common trends in the post COVID scenario, as most of the children have got used to it, they say.
In a recent study conducted by the Imphal Free Press in view of the concerning reports of increase in speech delay among young children, almost cent per cent of the children who came for treatment at hospitals for speech impediment are all used to handling mobile phones, while maximum of their parents are working parents.
A decade ago, most of the children who attended the age of three years were able to speak simple sentences, except for a few, due to genetic factors and health condition.
However, in the present scenario many normal children are not able to attend the milestone, especially on speech and language development, the study found.
According to the milestone chart available at Vikaspedia, a child should start making cooing and gurgling sound within three months; babbling in three to six months; able to vocalise emotional satisfaction or dissatisfaction in six to nine months; start using voice for getting attention and the child’s first word is usually heard at any time within nine to 18 months.
By 18 months, a child's vocabulary increases gradually and from 18 months to 2.5 years, a child should be able to combine words into simple sentences and can name a few common nouns or words.
On an average, 30 to 50 children below three years came for speech impediment treatment only at RIMS every month.
The factor for a child not reacting as per the speech milestone might be due to genetics or environmental factors such as medications or complications during pregnancy, malnutrition or infections. However, it also depends on the parenting method, head of Department of Psychiatry of RIMS, Dr RK Lenin, said, speaking exclusively to this Imphal Free Press reporter.
In the clinical term, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which mainly defects the communication skill, is a factor of a child unable to attend the milestone, he explained.
Dr Lenin further said that though several studies point to parenting style as one of the factors leading to autism, it is still inconclusive.
Highlighting the changes in parenting methods, Dr Lenin pointed out that leaving a child unattended by providing a mobile phone and keeping them engaged with it, playing nursery rhymes for their children has become common among working parents.
Besides, some parents (especially grandparents) are encouraging the child to use mobile phones and take pride in their grandchild’s ability to operate electronic devices, which is unnecessary and meaningless, he stated.
Meanwhile, the joint family system has taken a back seat. Most people are confined to nuclear family and hence, working parents leave their child in the care of a babysitter who is usually a minor girl, he said, adding that as the babysitter is confined to things that interests them (due to immaturity), the child suffers from lack of interaction and communication with people.
In this way, a child lacks social exposure and gets easily addicted to mobile phones, thus causing delay in his or her speech development skill though the child is able to understand other basic things, he added.
“Yes, digital devices such as mobile phones have become essential, but their use is not advisable for a child below three years and in pre-school. The concept that the child will become tech-savvy and intelligent if he or she is stimulated and exposed to new technology such as mobile phones is totally wrong,” the doctor cautioned parents.
Dr Lenin also cited a case where a child who never interacted with Hindi speaking people or visited outside states can speak Hindi language, while he or she may not have learned to speak in his or her mother tongue due to maximum exposure to TV and the internet.
“There is no advantage of giving mobile phones or tablets to young children as exposing them to mobile screens will lead them to a virtual world far removed from reality. Children learn and grow better with toys,” Dr Lenin said.
In the effort to address the problem of speech delay among young children, Dr Lenin suggested all parents to at least spend some quality time every day with their children and communicate with them regularly. by giving undivided attention to them to prevent autism, which is likely to arise out of improper or poor parenting.
According to speech therapist M Ongbi Punam, who has been working in the field for over 12 years, the rate of autism cases is not increasing but the detection has increased due to growing awareness.
“As per my experience, the rate of autism cases is not increasing. It is the increase in awareness of milestones among parents which detects more speech delay cases among their children,” Dr Punam said, speaking exclusively to the Imphal Free Press.
However, the speech therapist maintained that autism among children below three years has become common and widespread in children belonging to nuclear families and those exposed to mobile screens for long period of time.
Providing suggestions, Ongbi Punam said speech impairments or other disabilities that affects language development among infants and toddlers can be easily identified with a Receptive–Expressive Emergent Language (REEL) test.
Parents can visit any district hospitals or child healthcare centres for screening of their children for any suspected autism case for early treatment, she added.
A mother of a three-year-old child, who is undergoing speech therapy, said during an interaction with the Imphal Free Press, “The child has been exposed to mobile phone since the age of one. Playing nursery rhymes through the internet connection on mobile phones is used as a means to stop her from crying and make her eat and keep her engage”.
“As her speech is confined to only one word such as ‘yes’, ‘no, no’, ‘go’, ‘come’ and some other monosyllables though she understands every word we say, we started to suspect that something was not right and hence, we came for medical checkup and treatment,” the mother added.
Notably, electronic or digital devices, including mobile phones and tablets, and access to internet service, which is considered as a boon in this fast growing technology-driven world, can be a bane if they are used as an easy tool to calm or keep the child engaged while they attend to other things.