You are probably familiar with the famous television series Sesame Street. It was one of my favourite shows growing up. I learned the months of the year from it when I was around three, and happily recited them whenever someone asked me to. Being a child in the 90s, exposure to TV in my early years was limited, and mostly restricted to such educational programmes. Yet, the situation is quite different for today’s children. Living in the era of technology, children of all ages are surrounded by shiny technological gadgets – smartphones, tablets, computers – some of which even offer applications designed to teach them words, numbers, objects, and even foreign languages. This raises a question that is relevant for caregivers, researchers and policymakers: do screens help or hinder children’s overall development and, crucially, language development? As with many of these questions, the answer is: it depends.
Both how much language a child hears in a day, as well as how varied the language is, matters for language development. Children who hear a great many words, and also a lot of different words, are more likely to, later, have a larger vocabulary. Importantly, the context in which children are exposed to language also makes a difference. Typically, children learn language in a social environment, by interacting with their caregivers, siblings, and friends. The social aspects of these interactions seem to be crucial for learning. Take, for example, the challenge of learning the sounds of a language, which is one of the earliest tasks an infant needs to accomplish to master their native tongue. A series of studies suggests that nine-month-old babies learn the sounds of a novel language better in interactions with real live adults. When they watched, or listened to videos of an adult teaching them sounds, they did not learn at all. Why is there such a difference in learning from screens and live interaction?
The video deficit
Researchers call this difference between learning from screens and learning through live social interaction “the video deficit”. What advantage do social interactions offer over watching videos? First of all, young children may attend more to information (for instance, language) during live interactions compared to videos or recordings. As a result, they might learn the incoming information more easily. Their arousal and motivation to learn seems to increase simply in the presence of someone else, even a fellow baby, which may help them learn and remember new information. Also, live interactions provide a myriad of social cues that are not necessarily available in interactions when watching a video. Those social cues, such as the speaker’s eye gaze and pointing to the objects they are talking about, might help infants learn language more efficiently. Live videos that allow for interaction, such as video chats, may also work better than one-way, pre-recorded videos.
Interestingly, research has shown that young children can overcome this video deficit if they watch and interact with another person while they are both watching a screen. In another study, children between the ages of two-and-a-half and three viewed videos that were intended to teach them new verbs. They only learned these verbs when an adult interacted with them while they watched the videos. Children who were already three-years-old, however, were able to learn those verbs from watching screens only, suggesting that the video deficit may decrease with age. Results of another study shows that co-watching compared to watching alone is already beneficial at a very early age: very young babies at nine months learned the sounds of a foreign language better when another baby was there, watching the same material with them.
Is screen time bad?
We have been living with COVID-19 for over a year now. A lot has changed in the past year; our screen time, for instance, has increased from about two hours to over five hours per day on average, according to a recent study. Children also seem to be watching screens more (see here for a study with 4- to 17-year-olds, which found an increase of about an hour per day). The question posed at the beginning of this article, then, is even more relevant and pressing today: are screens harmful? If children learn more from social interactions than videos, does that mean screen time could be bad for children’s language development? Well, not necessarily. While too much media use is unfavourable for children, we cannot conclude that screen time is inherently harmful for their development. The focus should be on how children watch screens, rather than merely how much.
When discussing screen time, several factors such as what children watch, how and how often they watch it, must be kept in mind. Moderate exposure to age-appropriate educational TV shows does not seem to have a negative effect on children’s language development, although excessive passive video viewing may. How old the child is is another important factor. The World Health Organisation recommends no screen time for children under one, and no longer than one hour for up to two years of age, although the exact guidelines differ between policymakers. And don’t forget: simply watching along with your child and interacting with them while they are watching is better than children watching passively by themselves. Co-viewing can both help the child overcome the video deficit, and can spark meaningful interactions between the child and the caregiver. For instance, by describing what the child sees on the screen, commenting on it or asking questions about it (“Oh look, there is a cat in the tree! What colour is the cat?”), the caregiver talks about what the child is attending to, which fosters language development.
When it comes to early language development, screens cannot replace social interaction. It is inarguable that young children need a social partner at the early stages of language learning. After all, language learning is a social process, and children learn language not by simply copying what they hear, but by actively interacting with others. However, it might not always be possible to interact with your child – when you are cooking at the end of a long work day, for instance. Is it then better for your child to have them watch Peppa Pig on your phone, or play by themselves with some toys? The research is not as clear about those times when screen time replaces alone play. More work is needed here. Should we then get rid of screens altogether? The answer is not black and white, but lies in finding a healthy balance between quality time with children that involves a lot of face-to-face interaction, including lots of play and reading, and guided, interactive screen time.
– Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(15), 9096–9101. Link
– Lytle, S. R., Garcia-Sierra, A., & Kuhl, P. K. (2018). Two are better than one: Infant language learning from video improves in the presence of peers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(40), 9859-9866.
– Roseberry, S., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., Parish‐Morris, J., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2009). Live action: Can young children learn verbs from video?. Child development, 80(5), 1360-1375.
– Strouse, G. A., & Samson, J. E. (2021). Learning From Video: A Meta‐Analysis of the Video Deficit in Children Ages 0 to 6 Years. Child development, 92(1), e20-e38.
Writer: Melis Çetinçelik
Editors: Eva Poort, Adam Psomakas
Dutch translation: Lynn Eekhof
German translation: Bianca Thomsen
Final editing: Merel Wolf