Early Learning and Technology

Nurtureshock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, is a valuable resource for anyone who works with children.  In it, the authors look at recent studies done about children through teens, particularly ones that challenge common wisdom.

In the penultimate chapter, the authors take on learning to speak and read.  They cover a study in which babies who watched videos with disembodied voices did not gain as many new vocabulary words as those who didn’t.

What’s more, other studies showed that even talking lots and lots to your baby did not guarantee their vocabulary would grow.  The authors say:

If there’s one main lesson from this newest science, it’s this:  the basic paradigm has been flipped.  The information flow that matters most is in the opposite direction we previously assumed.  The central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly.

In fact, one study that looked at how quickly parents responded to their children’s vocalizations and explorations had interesting results:  “The toddlers of high-responders were a whopping six months ahead of the toddlers of low-responders.  They were saying their first word at ten months, and reaching the other milestones by fourteen months.”

What does this mean regarding children and technology?

One of the problems with the disembodied voice videos mentioned at the start of the chapter was that no faces were shown to go with the words.  But the reason babies could learn more from people than from a television set was that caregivers would get their attention — and facilitate learning best — by responding to the babies’ own cues.

Now, I’m curious:  What happens when a baby uses a program or app that responds to the baby’s own cues?

My own son learned to use a computer mouse at 15 months.  It powerfully drew his attention.

That was 17 years ago.  Now, what is happening with apps, which have a much more natural action of swiping the screen?  Is there any significance that it’s even easier to turn pages on an e-book on most devices than even to turn the pages of a paper book?

One study that begins to look at these issues was done by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center.  They compared parent-child co-reading between print books and “basic” or “enhanced” e-book platforms.  They found the parent and child talked more about the story and retained more of the content with the print books or basic e-books, but that the children were more engaged with the enhanced e-books.

Now, I had a friend who limited her son’s “screen time” — computers or television all counted the same.  In fact, the current AAP Media Use Guidelines also talk about “screen time” and don’t cover if it makes any difference to interact with a device that responds to the baby.

Mind you, statistically, you can’t really draw conclusions about new technology that hasn’t been available very long.  The program that taught my son to use a mouse was The Cat in the Hat, but I’m sure that was a far cry from what e-versions of The Cat in the Hat can do today.  I read the e-book with him, clicking on the animations.  But I am sure my frequency of interaction with him was cut down greatly once he learned to use the mouse himself.

The Hatch “Early Learning Experts” report a study using their own software, the  “iStartSmart” program that showed excellent results.  But this is one study done about one product, and reported by the company selling the product.  I doubt we can draw conclusions about touch screen products in general.

It’s going to be interesting to watch the research grow.  To their credit, the Hatch institute has a call out for Early Learning Research.

As librarians, we can consider contributing to the research ourselves.  But perhaps more important, we can strive to make this research and new research available to parents, as well as modeling the results.

Respond to the child.  In many ways, that’s a good motto even for why we encourage older children to choose their own books.

Sondra Eklund is a librarian at Fairfax County Public Library and a member of the ALSC Children and Technology committee.  She’s been writing book reviews at since 2001.


  1. Natalie

    Great article- thanks for getting us up to speed on some facts!

  2. odessa ellis

    I enjoyed the article about babies and technology, each generation advances so fast that it is so amazing to watch them learn what use to take us months. As a children’s library clerk I’m encouraged to talk to more young moms and share this with them.

  3. Sondy

    Thanks for the input! It’s hard to know what’s good or bad for babies when it changes so quickly! Meanwhile, the babies are busy learning to use it!

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