Electronic Toys Impede Language Development in Children

CC BY 2.0. Caitlin Regan

Often marketed as educational, electronic toys have the opposite effect, resulting in parents and children speaking less to each other.

Electronic toys are a poor substitute for parents’ voices, research has shown, and may impede children’s speech development. This might come as a surprise to parents and teachers who thought that the flashing, singing, and chattering battery-powered toys they’d purchased were an educational investment, but a study published last year in JAMA Pediatrics found the opposite.

When children played with electronic toys, they made fewer sounds than when they played with traditional toys, such as books, wooden blocks, and age-appropriate puzzles. When parents played along with their kids, they, too, spoke much less. It was as if they “let the toys do the talking for them.” There were fewer turns in the conversation, fewer parental responses, and fewer content-specific words.

There are several reasons for this, according to an analysis published in Psychology Today:

“First, parents would need to interrupt the electronic toy to get a word in edge-wise. Second, many parents are wary of getting in the way of the toy's ‘teaching power.’ And finally, electronic toys are a welcome break for many parents who use them as a way to entertain and engage their children.”

While there’s nothing wrong with giving electronic toys to kids, especially if it means you get a bit of time to yourself, it’s dangerous to think that a child benefits or learns from a particular electronic toy, no matter what the ads promise. An electronic toy is not a substitute for the face-to-face dialogue that children so desperately need for good language development.

From Psychology Today:

“There is no research showing that children learn language from electronic toys. Electronic playthings are simply not sophisticated enough to have the back and forth social interactions that build phonemic awareness and, ultimately, words. A baby needs feedback and reinforcement delivered with smiles, giggles, touch, and words. The language centers in a baby's brain thrive on real-person interaction.”

Television and handheld devices have a similar effect at dampening parent-child interactions, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics tightened its recommendations last year for how much screen time a child should have: “Too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep.”

So, next time you’re at the toy store, avoid the beeping, buzzing, yapping aisle and check out the old-fashioned toys instead. Not only do these tend to be cheaper (both upfront and in maintenance because you won’t be buying batteries all the time), but you’ll also rest assured knowing your kids are getting some real developmental and cognitive benefits while playing.