As a graduate student studying how children develop language, Sarah Roseberry made an interesting observation. Parents would come into her lab at Temple University and talk about how they Skyped with grandparents in places like the Dominican Republic.
“The parents would swear their children were learning Spanish,” recalls Roseberry, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington. “The more we thought about it, the more we realized this made sense.”
Roseberry decided to take her theory into the research lab. What she found was intriguing: Language can be learned via video chat, as long as the conversation allows for meaningful back-and-forth exchanges.
For the study, Roseberry and her colleagues gathered a group of 36 children between the ages of 2 and 2-and a-half, the time when children are still just learning language from others and not from videos.
They were divided into three groups: the first group worked one-on-one with adults in the room, the second group worked one-on-one with an adult via video chat and the third group of toddlers were shown a video of an adult communicating in a video chat with another child.
The researchers then introduced the children to nonsense words which required an action. So for example “meeping” was used to refer to turning and “blicking” referred to bouncing. After learning the words, the researchers showed the children a split screen on a computer. On one side Sesame Street characters were performing the action and on the other side, they were doing something else. Researchers then asked the children to point out which characters were performing the nonsense words.
They found the children who learned the words through live interactions and video chat, were the only ones who could do it. The kids only watching the video and not engaging with the adult, didn’t pick up the concepts. “It’s the difference between the child being an active learner versus a passive learner,” says Roseberry.
So what’s the take away for parents? Roseberry thinks the message is nuanced.
“Screen time isn’t all good or all bad,” says Roseberry.
For those of us with children who love their iPads and tablets, she suggests looking for games that encourage learning versus entertainment. “All screens are not created equal,” says Roseberry.
The study appears in the most recent edition of the journal Child Development.