New study: screen-time won’t restrict kids’ vocabularies… IF parents read to them

One of the big parental worries of our age is whether children’s use of screens risks restricting their development of other skills like reading and writing. A new study from the UK has some encouraging findings on that score.

Led by Dr Gemma Taylor from the University of Salford, and published in the Journal of Children and Media, the research focused on 131 ‘highly educated’ caregivers for British children aged between six months and three years old, in an effort to gauge any impact their TV and touchscreen time had on their reading abilities.

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash

And? Here’s the relevant part from the research abstract:

“Time spent reading positively predicted vocabulary comprehension and production scores at 6–18 months, but time spent engaging with television or mobile touchscreen devices was not associated with vocabulary scores. Critically, correlations revealed that time spent reading or engaging with other non-screen activities was not offset by time spent engaging with television or mobile touchscreen devices. Thus, there was no evidence to suggest that screen media exposure adversely influenced vocabulary size in our sample of highly educated families with moderate media use.”

And here’s what Dr Taylor had to say about the findings, with an important caveat about this particular sample of parents surveyed:

“Our findings showed that, in the sample we looked at, the children’s vocabulary size was not affected by time in front of mobile devices, as the parents were still spending time reading with them,” she said.

“However, it’s important to note that the sample we looked at was made up of highly educated families, and in order to study this issue more broadly we would need to look at a much larger group of parents.”

It shows the value of programs that try to encourage parents to read to and with their children – and just as importantly, those that provide help and support for parents who find this a challenge, whether because of their own literacy level or other reasons.

‘Tablets in the daytime, but books for bedtime’ is already an approach taken by lots of parents and carers (not that books aren’t good for the daytime too…) but like Dr Taylor, we’d like to see more research to help parents understand how screen-time, reading and other forms of play can work together.

One final caveat: not all screen-time is the same. There are some excellent apps and YouTube channels that specifically aim to help children practise their reading skills: so we’d expect that time spent using those would have a positive impact on kids’ vocabularies, compared to other forms of screen entertainment.

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