Toddlers and Screens and the Importance of Parents

An article by Douglas Quenqua in Saturday’s New York Times poses the question “Is E-Reading to Your Toddler Story Time, or Simply Screen Time?” 

Because screens are relatively new, there is limited research in this area, but the studies that have been done point to a difference. According to a 2013 study, the kids who were read to using traditional books had higher reading comprehension than the ones who were read to from e-books.

The article points out that learning to read and learning language is a process better accomplished through human interaction than human-to-technology interaction. Another study on language learning with 9-month-old babies revealed that these babies learned more Mandarin Chinese with a human instructor than they did via a DVD, even though the babies were highly attentive to the DVD. Researchers had one group of babies watch a Mandarin Chinese instructor via DVD; another group had a live teacher and a third group only learned English. The kids using the DVD learned no Mandarin Chinese at all – no more than the kids exposed exclusively to English. The only group that learned any Mandarin Chinese was the group of babies with the live person interacting with them.

These studies are similar to the research that says having dinner as a family several times a week for at least 20 minutes has positive effects on the children, and that the interaction between infants and mothers during breastfeeding positively impacts the child. Even simply talking to infants and young children raises their IQ.

The common denominator in all of these activities – reading, eating together, breastfeeding and talking — is that parents are interacting with the child in a positive, low-tech manner. It isn’t the dinner. It isn’t the book. It isn’t the breast or the words coming out of our mouths. It’s the interaction with adults that our children crave. They learn by spending time with us.

Research shows that while moms are breastfeeding their children, they’re not just feeing their children, they are “teaching” their babies through making eye contact, talking and touching their infants.

When families eat together, the research says children are less likely to engage in risky behaviors and be more involved in school. But it isn’t the act of eating that makes the difference. The research says that parents and children should spend at least 20 minutes together, and they should make the gathering positive, with a lot of listening and conversation going on.

When parents talk to their baby or young child, when they speak in conversational ways, show interest in things, look at the child, encourage speech in the child even before the baby can talk, then the child has a much better chance at success in school and in life.

And when we read traditional books to our infants and toddlers, we are not only reading words on a page, but we are also interacting with the pages and with our children. We turn the pages; we ask our children what might happen next; we engage in what the article called a “back-and-forth discussion of the story and its relation to the child’s life that research has shown are key to a child’s linguistic development.”

In other words, it isn’t just the act of reading or eating or talking or feeding, but the positive and on-going parent-to-child interaction that gives children the great start in life – the foundation to reach whatever potential they have.

And isn’t it great that the most effective and efficient tool we can use to make our kids smarter is ourselves?

Categories: Editor’s Blog