Baby vs smartphone

It’s not unusual for me to sit on a bench in a park for a half hour and see a dozen mothers pass by pushing their babies and toddlers in strollers (I live in a very family-friendly neighborhood). What has struck me recently is that most of these mothers push the stroller idly, meanwhile talking on the phone, silently texting or simply web-browsing. To be fair, some of them also push the stroller while running – and as a rather poor jogger, I’m impressed. But regarding the “smartphone-wired” mothers, I could not help but wonder: aside from the immediate danger of hitting a tree or missing a step, is such a parental behavior possibly affecting the child?

Recently there has been much interest (and parental concern) in the increasing use of tablets/computers by young children. Given the newness of such a situation, there is not much research available on the subject. But instead of just worrying about how much time toddlers spend in front of a screen (much like our own parents probably did about the hours we spent watching TV), maybe parents should also rethink the time they themselves spend fully engrossed by their smartphones or tablets.

A couple of days ago I read an article in The Atlantic that started with an observation similar to mine – many parents pushing a toddler in a stroller were meanwhile directing all their attention to their phone or someone on the other end of it, not to their child and/or direct environment. The author, a linguist, started wondering about how this type of parental behavior would affect the child’s language development. She then mentioned a study published in 2009 in the scientific journal Pediatrics that highlighted the importance of adult-child conversations and direct interactions, not just overall exposure to language, in the child’s language development.

By now we know how important the amount of language input a child receives in his/her early years is in subsequent language acquisition and cognitive development. That’s why parents are encouraged to read stories to their kids and talk to them. But what this study did was to look at how important it was for adults not only to talk to, but also to talk with young children.

The researchers recruited 275 babies and toddlers (2 to 36 months of age at enrollment) and asked the parents to switch on a recording device (carried in the pocket of a vest worn by the child) when the child woke up in the morning and switch it off at night when the child fell asleep. This was done once a month for 6 months. The recordings were then analyzed by a software to estimate the child’s exposure to language through different situations: either exposure to television (direct viewing or background), exposure to “live” adult speech (whether addressed to the child or not), and child-adult interactions (identified as conversational turns, i.e. speaking patterns like adult-child-adult-child-etc.). The children were tested using a standard method, the Preschool Language Scale (PLS), to evaluate language development via different variables such as gesture, social communication, language structure, phonological awareness and attention.

The study’s results showed that when the three predictor variables (TV, adult speech, adult-child conversational turns) were looked at independently regarding their influence on the outcome variable (the child’s language development, PLS score), all three had a significant effect. An increase in the total adult word count to which the child was exposed was positively associated with an increase in the PLS score; the same was true for conversational turns, but TV viewing was negatively associated with the PLS score. However, when all predictors were analyzed together, adult word count and TV exposure no longer had a significant effect on the PLS score outcome while conversational turns still had a positive one.

The researchers followed 71 children further for a total of 18 months (same protocol, same analysis). The results from this longitudinal study confirmed that adult-child conversations/interactions had a significantly positive effect on the child’s language development. This second phase had also an advantage over the first one in that since the same children were followed over a long time, it allowed the researchers to correct for each child’s own abilities in the analysis.

The main conclusion the researchers drew from this study was that it was not just the sheer volume of words to which children were exposed in their first years that counted when it came to language acquisition, but also and perhaps even more importantly, the way the children were exposed to language. The authors hypothesize that talking with a child is more effective than just talking to him/her or talking in his/her vicinity because such interactions allow for more practice and consolidation of the newly-acquired language by the child. The adults may correct the child’s mistakes, but importantly, the adults will also more effectively adjust their speech to the child’s level so that it will be challenging enough that the child learns something, but not too advanced that the child can’t really benefit from it. In this scenario, it is possible that TV exposure appears detrimental mainly because it reduces the time available for interactions between children and adult caregivers.

The author of The Atlantic’s article also cited another study supporting the importance of interactions between adults and children in language development in infancy. Several studies have shown that infants are capable of discerning differences among the phonetic units of both native and foreign languages, but that sometime between 6 and 12 months of age, this ability decreases sharply for foreign-languages sounds, while the perception performance for the native language increases. In this study published in PNAS in 2003, the researchers wanted to test whether it was possible to reverse/prevent the decline in foreign-language sound perception usually observed as babies grow up.

The authors exposed 9-month-old American infants from English-speaking households to either Mandarin Chinese (10 babies) or English (11 babies) during twelve 25-minute lab sessions done over a period of four weeks. They then tested the babies for the ability to discern phonetic units in Mandarin. The results showed that the decline in such an ability seen in the English-exposed control group was reversed when the babies were exposed to Mandarin native speakers. What’s of particular interest to us in this study is that the researchers had also exposed two other groups of babies to Mandarin Chinese, but in this case via audiovisual (15 babies) or audio (13 babies) recordings. The results for these babies showed no reversal in the decline of Mandarin Chinese speech perception, highlighting the importance of direct interpersonal interactions in the development of language in infancy – and in this particular situation, in phonetic learning.

Sure enough, we all learn to talk at some point. But with the education of toddlers becoming ever so sophisticated (not to mention expensive) in some families, ignoring the basics would seem ironic. So, instead of checking your emails for the tenth time this morning while out for a walk with your child, why not engage him/her into a conversation about how cute the doggie you just passed is? It cannot hurt. Unless your child ends up wanting a doggie, and you don’t, of course.


1. Papa, don’t text: the perils of distracted parenting. Deborah Fallows. The Atlantic. June 19, 2013.
(free access here)

2. Teaching by listening: the importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Zimmerman FJ, Gilkerson J, Richards JA, Christakis DA, Xu D, Gray S, Yapanel U. Pediatrics. 2009 Jul;124(1):342-9. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-2267.
PMID: 19564318
(free access)

3. Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Kuhl PK, Tsao FM, Liu HM. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Jul 22;100(15):9096-101. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1532872100.
PMID: 12861072
(free access)
Zimmerman FJ, Gilkerson J, Richards JA, Christakis DA, Xu D, Gray S, & Yapanel U (2009). Teaching by listening: the importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124 (1), 342-9 PMID: 19564318


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