Conversations – not apps -- grow children’s language

06/05/2017 03:58 am ET

THIS BLOG POST WAS WRITTEN WITH REBECCA DORE, ONE OF OUR TALENTED POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWS. KATHY HIRSH-PASEK AT TEMPLE UNIVERSITY, MY LONG STANDING COLLEAGUE, ALSO WROTE IT WITH US.

Those of us with children have all been there: standing in a queue as long as the river Nile at the supermarket with a slowing unraveling toddler in the cart. You could hand her your iPhone with a colorful app that bings and boings to forestall that tantrum. Or, you could talk to her – where are those apples in the cart? Can she find the picture of the little girl on the cereal box, or find the letter “G” that her name starts with on the big sign over head?

In fact, researcher Julia Ma and her colleagues suggest that you just might want to have that conversation. At a recent Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, they reported their findings from a study of over 1000 children under the age of 2. They had asked parents to report how often their children used handheld digital devices in an average day. These same parents then responded to a questionnaire about their children's language abilities. What did they find? Children with more screen time were more likely to be delayed in their language expression! Moreover, these researchers were careful and took many other factors into account when they did their analyses: maternal education, family income, infant temperament, and parent - child overall screen time on other than handheld devices. These precautions suggest that their finding was really about children’s handheld screen time.

Handheld devices are pervasive – found in every crevice of our lives. We check them before we go to bed and they are the first point of contact with the world when we awaken in the morning. Recent data shows high uptake by even the youngest children. Reports suggest that the 2-4 crowd goes digital for almost 2 hours a day. But the wide-spread use of these devices is a relatively new phenomenon. We just sang Happy Birthday to the 10-year-old iPhone and the tablet is just 7 years of age. Not surprisingly, research has lagged behind the rapidly changing technology. But that means that we are putting devices into the hands of our toddlers when we know very little about their possible effects.

But we do know what helps our children learn language. Decades of research tell us that language learning depends on human interaction and on what researchers call 'contingency' – responding to our children soon after they speak and building on what they say. Digital devices can interrupt the conversation that is so vital to language success. Research from our labs shows that children will not learn new words when their conversation with a parent is interrupted by a cell phone call.

The findings of these studies are consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics statement that discourages screen media (except video chat) for children under 18 months of age. Why is video chat an exception? Because it preserves that contingent back-and-forth conversation that is so key to learning. Video chats are conversation starters unlike apps that are conversation stoppers.

The findings from any particular study should be seen as preliminary. Yet, this new study raises a red flag. Everything we know about language development tells us that children need conversation, not apps, to learn language. And, since language is the foundation for school achievement, self-control, and personal relationships, it is crucially important that we nurture its development. Conversations with people nurture language -- not hand-held devices.

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CONVERSATIONS