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Do Screens Help or Harm Language Development in Early Years Children?

It’s hard to escape smartphones and tablets these days, but care must be taken when using them to support communication skills

  • Do Screens Help or Harm Language Development in Early Years Children?

A child aged around 13 months is sitting in a buggy while her mother sips a coffee. She looks at her mother and says, “Ma…Ma…Mamama” and smiles. The mother reaches down into her bag, pulls out her smartphone and hands it to the child saying, “Play with this.” The baby takes the phone in both hands and looks at her mother, but her mother says nothing more so the baby turns her attention to the phone.

This scenario may seem all too familiar to those who work with young children and their families. On buses, at home, in restaurants and in cars, babies and toddlers are being given smartphones and iPads or tablets to play with.

As with TV viewing, concerns have been expressed that interactive, screen-based technologies are used as ‘virtual pacifiers’.

It is easy to look back at the ‘old days’ when parents and children would have sung songs together, talked about what could be seen out of the window, shared stories or simply played together when at home.

This, however, is a very culturally specific view of how adults and children have interacted in the past. Patterns of adult-child interaction vary across cultures, and furthermore, screen-based technology is an integral part of family life, so it may be important that children are encouraged to learn how to use it.

The important question is whether screen-based technologies support or hinder early language development.

Adult interaction matters

Unlike television, which has been around for decades, hand-held screen-based technologies are relatively new, so there has been less research into their impact on language development.

However, it is argued that the portability of smartphones, tablets and iPads means they are even more likely than TV to interfere with early language development, as they potentially reduce even further the time that babies and children could be spending in interactions with another person.

Research has also shown that mothers using mobile technology are more likely not to notice, or to be unresponsive to, their baby’s attempts at interaction.

Research has suggested that use of YouTube is increasing amongst the under-twos, and that it is accessed mainly for the purposes of listening to nursery rhymes and lullabies.

Researchers are cautious about the value of this for such young children.

While it may be the only way a child accesses such material it is unclear whether it enhances language development for this age group (for more on this, download Technology and Play’s Exploring play and creativity in pre-schoolers’ use of apps report.

Tablets and iPads also provide very young children with the opportunity to access e-books. The value of sharing books with babies is widely accepted, and organisations such as the National Literacy Trust provide ample advice and guidance about sharing books with babies, for example, as part of the latter’s Talk to Your Baby resources.

Research with children aged three to five suggests that children gain the most when an adult is involved in sharing the e-book. Without the mediation of an adult, children tend to ignore the text, hear only fragments of the text, often in a random order, and prefer to play with animations within the e-books.

This research would suggest that babies and toddlers need adult support to navigate an e-book, and that it is the interaction with the adult which will be most supportive of the child’s earliest language development.

Most educational computer program s and apps for young children are designed to be interactive, and may seem to provide feedback to support children’s learning. However, the feedback may not be specific enough to be of value.

For example, if toddlers are able to continue pressing random buttons in a game until a particular response is deemed ‘correct’, it is unlikely that they will have learned the correct response, or learned from their errors.

Again, adults are needed to mediate children’s use of these games so that they provide opportunities for interaction with a responsive conversation partner who can interpret and comment on what is happening.

Final thoughts

In summary, parents and practitioners should work together to maximise young children’s confident use of new and emerging technologies while remaining conscious of the importance of providing appropriate opportunities for high-quality adult-child interactions, some of which may need to be technology-free.


Theory into practice

How can practitioners implement research on the effect of screen-based technology on children’s communication?

  • The first thing to consider is what ICT you have available in your setting for children to use, and what children are accessing at home, so that you can share practical examples of learning opportunities with parents.
  • Set a limit on the screen time children will have in the setting, and share this with parents, explaining the reasons why you have this policy. Ensure that staff sit with the children and interact with them during screen-based activities, to scaffold learning opportunities and stimulate conversation during and after the activity.
  • If you use iPads or similar technology with children, make sure that the technology supports other learning opportunities, for example, to research something that has stimulated a child’s interest during a forest school session.
  • If you use DVDs or watch TV at any time in the setting, be clear what your learning objectives are beforehand and stay focused on them.

This article is an edited extract taken from the Pre-school Learning Alliance publication Early Language Development, which is priced at £11.55 for Alliance members and £16.50 for non-members. Visit shop.pre-school.org.uk.

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