The toddler screen debate: are we asking the wrong question?

So the “young kids and screens debate” rages on.  At one extreme, some argue screens are very bad and that toddlers shouldn’t watch them at all.  Others say that iPad apps and TV shows (or YouTube clips) like Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer are a great tool for language-learning.  And even very young kids are increasingly using tools like Skype, Google Hangouts and Facetime to talk to Mum, Dad, siblings, other relatives and even playmates.

My view: we’re arguing about the wrong thing.

What the research says  

  • Some studies show that toddlers do not acquire words from screens before the age of 3 (e.g. Robb et al, 2009; Scofield & Williams, 2007).
  • Other studies show that some children under 3 years show some very limited learning (e.g. Barr & Wys, 2008).
  • Children under 3 years can learn from screens if they believe the actions depicted are realistic and occurring live (e.g. Roseberry et al., 2010).
  • Children recognise their name by 4 1/2 months of age and expect to hear it from adults (e.g. Mandel et al., 1995).
  • Pre-recorded clips where the actor simply poses questions to children and pause for the answer (as in Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer) do not result in language learning for children aged under 3 years (e.g. Roseberry et al. 2014).
  • Toddlers seem to learn better from watching a social interaction on video than from being directly addressed through video (e.g. O’Doherty et al., 2011).
  • Children older than 3 years learn language robustly from video (e.g. Singer & Singer, 1998).

Where does that leave us?

The consensus is is that children of all ages learn language better from a live person than from an equivalent video (e.g. Krcmar et al, 2007, Kuhl et el. 2003).

But why?  Is it just the screen or something else?

In 2014, Sarah Roseberry, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff published the results of a clever study designed to find out.  They studied 36 toddlers aged 24-30 months and exposed them to new words (made up verbs) during play activities in one of three ways:

  • live interaction with a therapist;
  • a live Skype video-call; and
  • a pre-recorded video.

The results: children only learned the new words through live interaction and from the live Skype video calls – not the prerecorded video.

What does this mean?

The screen is not the key issue.  Instead, it’s whether the interaction is live and whether the adult responds immediately and relevantly to what the child does and says.

Children learn language best through two-way exchanges with adults where the adult refers to the child by name and asks questions relevant to the child (e.g. about their name, pets, brothers and sisters).

This is consistent with other research that has shown that:

  • infants of 3 months who experienced turn-taking with an adult produced more syllabic or speech-like vocalisations than infants who did not experience turn-taking (Bloom et al., 1987); and
  • infants of 5 and 8 months of age produced more mature vocalisations if their mothers responded immediately to the noises they made (e.g. Goldstein et al., 2003).

Taken together, the results prove that language learning is improved by “social contingency”: adults responding immediately, reliably and accurately to the child’s words and actions.

Clinical bottom line 

Children younger than 3 do not learn language from pre-recorded video alone.  Children as young as 24 months can tell the difference between live social interactions and one-sided “ask and wait” models (like those used in Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer).  Live social interactions:

  • give toddlers enough social information to learn language; and
  • can help stimulate language development regardless of whether they are done face-to-face or by screen.

So, for children under 3 years of age, press pause on those Dora and Blues Clues episodes and have your child live Skype Dad or Mum at work instead!

Principal source: Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2014). Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language. Child Development, 85(3), 956-970.


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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