Health & Science

Electronic baby toys associated with decrease in quality and quantity of language in infants

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Any parent knows that noisy, flashing, push-button toys are sure to capture most babies’ and toddlers’ attention. But a new study shows that when babies are given electronic toys, their parents talk and interact with them much less than they do when the child plays with traditional (non-electronic) toys or books.

The researchers at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff used audio recorders to pick up speech while 10- to 16-month-old infants played with one of their parents. The results showed that adults used fewer words and there was less verbal interaction while the babies used electronic toys, compared with playing with traditional toys (puzzles, shape sorters, and blocks) or books. Parents talked the most and used the most content-specific words while looking at books with the infants. Children also vocalized more while using books versus electronic toys.

The impact

Since babies thrive on human interaction, and parental verbal communication is particularly important for language and literacy development, the study authors conclude, “These results provide a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive. … Both play with traditional toys and book reading can be promoted as language-facilitating activities while play with electronic toys should be discouraged.”

“Bells and whistles may sell toys, but they also can detract value,” write Jenny S. Radesky, M.D., of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, and Dimitri A. Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., of Seattle Children’s Hospital and a JAMA Pediatrics associate editor, in an editorial associated with the study.

The reasons

Why are verbal interactions between parent and baby so valuable? Beyond promoting important language and literacy skills, say Dr. Radesky and Dr. Christakis, these back-and-forth “conversational turns” can “teach role-playing, give parents a window into their child’s developmental stage and struggles, and teach social skills such as turn-taking and accepting others’ leads.” Nonverbal interactions can be important too, in particular for social and emotional development, but the study didn’t observe nonverbal interactions, as the two doctors pointed out.

The takeaway

Of course electronics can be useful as an occasional strategy for when parents really need to get something done and keep their child occupied. But for everyday use, keep in mind that electronic toys (just like screen time) shouldn’t be used as a replacement for human interaction. If you do want to use electronic toys, your child will learn much more if you verbally reinforce lessons that the toys are trying to impart—like talking about the letter “A” with your little one after they’ve pushed the corresponding button on their toy.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.