With such a wide range of electronic baby toys like baby laptops, baby mobile phones, and talking farms, many of which are marketed to help encourage an infant’s language skills, it raises the question as to whether these types of toys are necessary or better than their non-electronic, more traditional counterparts. A new study is now looking into whether these electronic toys are making children less likely to engage in verbal give-and-take with parents, which is crucial to cognitive development.
The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that when babies and parents played with electronic toys that were specifically advertised as language-promoters, parents spoke less and responded less to baby babbling than when they played with traditional toys like 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 V. Sosa, an associate professor of communications science and disorders at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who led the study.
This current study aims to build on the growing amount of research that suggests that electronic toys and e-books lead to parents being less likely to engage with their children in the most meaningful kinds of verbal exchanges. This happens because the toy or book takes the place of the caregiver and often the only interactions left are behavioural regulation instruction such as: “Don’t touch that” or: “Do this”, or sometimes even nothing because the books and toys take over for the parents.
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.
Dr. 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.
The results however were consistent across the board. In cases where electronic toys were used, the parents used on average roughly 40 words per minute. When compared to traditional toys, parents used roughly 56 words per minute and an even greater 67 words per minute with books. Children also used fewer words relevant to the toy’s context such as: “Oh, that’s a piggy,” or: “That barn is red.”Children using books spoke four times more often than when using electronic toys. Children were also twice as likely to use words with traditional toys compared to electronic ones. These results were consistent across differing parent communication styles and sex and age of the baby.
The study was small — 26 families — and most were white and educated. So the 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.
Findings of the study highlight the importance of not replace meaningful communication between parents and children with electronic toys as these types of play limit a child’s opportunity for communication and development.