Electronic Toys Could Hinder Language Development


A new study suggests that electronic toys that make noises might delay toddlers’ language development.

Researchers who gave a variety of toys to families found that parent-to-child communication decreased with kids were engaged with noisy toys. Since interaction with parents is one of the key ways that children develop cognitively and linguistically, habitually playing with these toys may hinder development.

Anna V. Sosa, with other researchers from the Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, led the study. Their analysis included 26 families with children aged 10 to 16 months, according to Carrie Kahn of NPR. Each family received three toy sets: electronic noise-making toys, traditional toys like wooden puzzles, and themed board-books.

When the toddlers played with electronic toys, there were fewer words exchanged between the parents, and between the parents and children — the average was 40 words per minute. The babies themselves were less vocal as well, meaning that electronic toys that are often marketed as helping with language learning may not be as effective as parents have hoped.

Playing with books resulted in the most verbal exchanges with parents at 67 words per minute. These interactions play the key role in the cognitive and linguistic development of children.

The traditional toys, like blocks, created conversation at an average of 56 words per minute.

The results were very similar regardless of the personality or “chattiness” of the involved parent, notes Pam Belluck of a New York Times blog.

The report was published in the December 23rd online edition of JAMA Pediatrics, reports Mary Elizabeth Dallas of Health Day.

In an editorial published alongside the study, Dr. Jenny Radesky of the University of Michigan Medical School and Dr. Dmitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Hospital wrote:

Electronic toys that make noises or light up are extremely effective at commanding children’s attention by activating their orienting reflex. This primitive reflex compels the mind to focus on novel visual or auditory stimuli.

Conversational turns during play do more than teach children language. They lay the groundwork for literacy skills, 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.

The research sample was small and relatively homogenous, but other researchers have come to similar conclusions.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, said:

A toy should be 10% toy and 90% child, and with a lot of these electronic toys, the toy takes over 90% and the child just fills in the blank.

The researchers concluded that digitally enhanced toys have a place in play, reports Sarah D. Young of Consumer Affairs, but the electronic aspects should serve a clear purpose and also anchor the child in the world around them.