Do educational TV and learning apps help or hinder language development in children?

Although a home without a television or tablet or other such devices is a rarity in America, if you have an infant or toddler in the home, you may want to keep the TV turned off—at least when they’re awake. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in a statement released in October 2016, children up to 2 years old need hands-on exploration and social interaction with parents and caregivers in order to develop cognitive and language skills (as well as motor and social-emotional skills). Even shows seen as educational, such as Sesame Street, won’t benefit your child’s learning, until they are about 3–5 years old.

Well-designed television programs can improve cognitive, literacy, and social outcomes for preschoolers beginning at age 3, particularly when media is shared with parents. But studies have found that for children younger than 2 years of age, television usage of more than two hours per day, with or without an adult, has been associated with expressive language delays; for those younger than 1 year old, such usage of television alone—without a parent watching alongside—is significantly associated with higher risk of language delays. Long-term effects are not clear, and further research is warranted. 

For parents who want to support their children’s language development, the AAP recommends the following: 

  • Avoid media use by children younger than age 18–24 months of age, and set limits when media is introduced. 
  • When media is introduced, limit use by children ages 2–5 years to no more than 1 hour per day. 
  • If your child is watching TV, choose shows carefully and watch alongside them so that you can interact with your child and engage them with questions and comments about the show.
  • Avoid fast-paced television programs and apps that are both distracting and difficult to comprehend, and avoid all violent content.
  • Keep televisions out of bedrooms. And avoid TV or tablet viewing for at least one hour before bedtime. Watching TV so close to bedtime can negatively affect your child’s quality of sleep, and even cause him to sleep less. 
  • Keep adult-audience TV shows off when children are around. Even if they don’t seem to be paying attention, “background” TV can have a negative effect on children. 
  • Provide opportunities for unstructured, “unplugged” play—both independently and with a parent or caregiver—to enhance cognitive development, problem-solving skills, innovative thinking, and reasoning. 
  • Read to your children every day! This supports both cognitive and language development. While they are young, skip digital books, which tend to have visual effects that are distracting and may decrease child comprehension of the story.
  • Support independent play during times when a parent is busy. 
  • Encourage outdoor play.
  • Make time for face-to-face communication. Engaging in back and forth "talk time" is critical for language development in babies and toddlers. Encourage face-to-face conversations often or, when necessary, by video chat with traveling parents or far-away family.

Last updated November 21, 2020

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