The effects of television on language skills: Does TV really prevent learning?

© 2009-2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Grappling with the effects of television

Studies report a link between TV and language development in babies. The more time babies spend watching television, the more slowly they learn to talk. What's going on?

Some people conclude that the effects of television on children are direct and negative. According to this view, television is noxious, like cigarette smoke. But whereas cigarettes damage the lungs, television damages the mind. Watching TV makes you (quite literally) dumb.

But correlation isn't causation, and a more fine-grained analysis of the problem supports a very different conclusion --

TV is linked with slower language acquisition because TV time tends to displace conversation time between babies and adults.

What the data really show

Television is merely a medium for transmitting information. Surely it’s the information that counts, not the medium itself. Indeed, experiments have shown that kids who watch age-appropriate educational programs, like Blues Clues, show immediate improvements in their abilities to recall information and to solve the sorts of problems modeled in the shows (Crowley et al 1999; Geist et al 2000).

Possibly, certain aspects of television—like the fast pace or rapid change of scenes—might contribute to the development of short attention spans. This disturbing idea receives support from several studies, including a recent experiment that compared the effects of “fast-edit” and “slow-edit” television on 4- to 7- year old school kids (Cooper et al 2009).

However, that’s not proof that TV makes you dumb.

What does seem likely is that babies have a relatively difficult time learning to talk by watching and listening to TV programs. To learn to speak, babies benefit from social interaction.

When it comes to learning speech, nothing beats a live conversation

Patricia Kuhl, a leading researcher in the field of language acquisition, has demonstrated this point in some elegant experiments on babies.

Kuhl and her colleagues presented 9-month old American babies with an unfamiliar language—Mandarin Chinese. In one experiment, babies were allowed to interact with a real, live Mandarin speaker. After 12 sessions, these babies showed an enhanced ability to discriminate certain speech sounds that are common in the Mandarin language.

But when the experiment was repeated with another set of infants who watched only televised language tutors, the results were different. The babies exposed to Mandarin via TV were no more likely than control infants to discriminate Mandarin speech sounds (Kuhl et al 2003).

In both experiments, the Mandarin speakers gazed directly at the babies, discussed toys, and used that special, “baby-friendly” style of speaking known as “infant-directed speech.” The difference between experiments was the social factor. As Kuhl notes, “infants are apparently not computational automatons—rather, they might need a social tutor when learning a natural language” (Kuhl 2004).

Research suggests that conversation, not listening to stories or watching TV, has the strongest positive effect on language development

This idea is supported by a recent study that fitted young children, aged zero to four years, with recording devices (Christakis et al 2009).

The devices allowed researchers to objectively measure how much adult conversation and television each child experienced.

The results were intriguing.

Researchers discovered that social talk—one-on-one, back-and-forth conversation between adults and their children—was linked with better language development. The more time babies and toddlers were included in adult conversations, the more quickly their language skills improved.

By contrast, listening to adult monologues—including storytelling--was only weakly correlated with language development. The effect of two-way conversations was almost 6 times greater than the effect of merely listening to adults talk.

And TV? When researchers controlled for the amount of time that kids spent in conversation, the effect of television on children was neither positive nor negative.

Other, more recent studies have yielded similar conclusions. When researchers have followed the development of young children, they have found that kids who spend more time talking with adults end up with larger vocabularies. Simply overhearing the speech of others doesn’t do the trick (Shneidman and Goldin-Meadow 2012; Shneidman et al 2013; Weisleder and Fernald 2013).

And an experiment using video chat technology really drives the point home. Sarah Roseberry and her colleagues randomly assigned a group of toddlers to experience one of two types of adult conversation: An adult talking to them live, via Skype, or an adult who appeared to be communicating via Skype but who was really pre-recorded.

Under both conditions, kids attempted to communicate with the adult, but only the “live” adult responded appropriately to the children’s comments, questions, or facial expressions. The prerecorded adults talked in the manner of a television host – appearing to engage the audience, but obviously unable to react contingently to anything the kids did or said.

After these sessions, the toddlers were tested to see if they’d learned an unfamiliar word that the adult had used. Only the kids who’d engaged in real live conversations picked up the new vocabulary (Roseberry 2014).

So what's the bottom line?

We should be concerned about the effects of television on children who are learning to talk. But the research on language acquisition doesn’t mean that television is the direct cause of learning delays. Instead, the more useful message is that babies benefit from genuine, back-and-forth conversations. Perhaps parents should worry a bit less about TV time and more about time spent in meaningful conversation with their kids.

References: The effects of television on children who are learning to talk

Cooper NR, Uller C, Pettifer J, and Stolc FC. 2009. Conditioning attentional skills: examining the effects of the pace of television editing on children's attention. Acta Paediatr. 2009 Jun 4. [Epub ahead of print].

Christakis DA, Gilkerson J, Richards JA, Zimmerman FJ, Garrison MM, Xu D, Gray S, and Yapanel U. 2009. Audible Television and Decreased Adult Words, Infant Vocalizations, and Conversational Turns: A Population-Based Study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 163(6):554-558.

Crawley AM, Anderson DR, Wilder A, Williams M, and Santomero A. 1999. Effects of repeated exposures to a single episode of the television program Blue’s Clues on the viewing behaviors and comprehension of preschool children. J Educ Psychol. 91: 630-638.

Geist EA, Gibson M. 2000. The effect of network and public education television programs on four and five year olds ability to attend to educational tasks. J Instructional Psychol. 27:250-261.

Kuhl PK. 2004. Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Neuroscience 5: 831-843.

Kuhl PK, Tsao FM, and Liu HM. 2003. Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 100(15):9096-101.

Roseberry S, Hirsh-Pasek K, and Golinkoff R. 2014. Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language. Child Dev. 85(3): 956–970.

Shneidman LA, Goldin-Meadow S. 2012. Language input and acquisition in a Mayan village: how important is directed speech? Dev Sci. 15(5):659-73.

Shneidman LA, Arroyo ME, Levine SC, and Goldin-Meadow S. 2013. What counts as effective input for word learning? J Child Lang. 40(3):672-86.

Weisleder A and Fernald A. 2013. Talking to children matters: early language experience strengthens processing and builds vocabulary. Psychol Sci. 24(11):2143-52.

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