A study found that when babies and parents played with electronic toys specifically advertised as language-promoters, parents spoke less and responded less to baby babbling than when they played with traditional toys such as blocks.
Baby laptops, baby cellphones, talking farms — these are the whirring, whiz-bang toys of the moment, many of them marketed as tools to encourage babies’ language skills.
But a new study raises questions about whether such electronic playthings make it less likely that babies will engage in the verbal give-and-take with their parents that is so crucial to cognitive development.
The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that when babies and parents played with electronic toys that are specifically advertised as language-promoters, parents spoke less and responded less to baby babbling than when they played with traditional toys such as blocks or read board books. Babies also vocalized less when playing with electronic toys.
“My hunch is that they were letting the baby interact with the toy and they were on the sidelines,” said Anna Sosa, an associate professor of communications science and disorders at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who led the study.
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The study builds on a growing body of research suggesting that electronic toys and e-books can make parents less likely to have the most meaningful kinds of verbal exchanges with their children.
“When you put the gadgets and gizmos in, the parents stop talking,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University who was not involved in the new study, but who has found similar effects with e-books and electronic shape-sorters. “What you get is more behavioral regulation stuff, like ‘Don’t touch that’ or ’Do this,’ or nothing because the books and toys take it over for you.”
She added: “A toy should be 10 percent toy and 90 percent child, and with a lot of these electronic toys, the toy takes over 90 percent and the child just fills in the blank.”
Sosa said she was surprised by the results. She had expected some parent-baby pairs would talk more with one type of toy, while others would talk more with another.
But the results were consistent almost across the board. When electronic toys were being used, parents said about 40 words per minute, on average, compared with 56 words per minute for traditional toys and 67 words per minute with books.
They also used fewer words that were relevant to the content of the toy, such as saying “Oh, that’s a piggy,” or “That barn is red.” Words like that were said over four times as often with books than electronic toys, and more than twice as often with traditional toys than electronic ones.
Sosa said the results were the same regardless of the sex or age of the baby, and whether the parent (almost all were mothers) was a “chatty” person or not.
“Since the toy was providing some feedback to the baby — if they pushed the button it did something, it made a noise, it lit up — we think that in addition to sort of letting the toys talk for them, the parents also sort of let the toy interact for them,” Sosa said.
The study was small — 26 families — and most were white and educated. So researchers say the results might be different with a larger and more diverse group. But the study is notable because it sought to capture real world parent-child playtime in their homes without researchers watching.
Parents were given three sets of toys: electronic toys including baby laptops, cellphones and a talking farm; traditional toys like blocks and farm-animal puzzles; and board books about colors, shapes and animals.
Over three days, parents and babies, who were 10 to 16 months old, played for two 15-minute sessions with each of the sets of toys. The parents were given audio recording devices that were turned on for the full three days, including for the 15-minute play sessions.
Erica Jones, 39, and her son Devin Willy, now 3, participated in the study when Devin was 10 months old.
Jones, who teaches English composition, said that when Devin was a baby, “I would sometimes talk to fill up the space,” saying “this is an onion” while cooking, for example. But she realized that with electronic toys “if there’s this other noise already there, I didn’t really feel like I wanted to talk. It felt a little bit weird sometimes to talk over the noise.”
Jones found the researchers’ findings were useful because “the busier I get, the more easy it is to let him play with different electronic toys, and because of the study, it just reminds me to kind of move away from that.”