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Can Baby Apps Really Teach Kids to Talk?

Photograph by Getty Images

Children’s advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood took aim at what it calls the “baby genius industry” recently after filing complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against baby app developers Fisher-Price and Open Solutions.

CCFC complained that both companies make claims that their apps will help babies learn math, reading, logic and spatial reasoning skills, when in fact no studies exist to prove that these apps can teach anything at all.

In response, Open Solutions removed their educational claims from its apps, but Fisher-Price has not.

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This is not the first time the “baby genius” industry has come under fire from the CCFC. The organization famously went after the popular Baby Einstein videos several years ago, and the complaint forced Disney to refund parents who had bought the videos hoping to create their own baby Einsteins. And, more recently, the FTC brought false advertising charges against the company behind “Your Baby Can Read,” due to the CCFC’s complaint.

A question I often hear from parents during early intervention evaluations is, “Which (insert name of “educational” DVD/game/app here) should I buy for my child?” And I always answer, “None.” Not only do I try to reinforce the AAP guidelines of no screens for kids under 2, but I also don’t want my families spending hard-earned money on gadgets and gizmos when what babies and toddlers need is face time and not FaceTime.

But I’m also a parent, mom to two upper elementary-age girls who were once toddlers. And if I stood here and told you that they never saw a screen before they were 2, I’d be lying. We owned six—six!—Baby Einstein videos during their toddler years, and they provided fuss-free shower time for me for two solid years. (Maybe they should put that in their marketing material!) Technology is everywhere, and babies and toddlers are going to be exposed to it in their day-to-day life. Rather than make it the bad guy, let’s look at how we can make it work for us.

It’s not the video or app that’s the problem, it’s when parents walk away and expect the app to do all of the work.

First, let’s consider how a baby learns to talk. When a baby is born, she has the ability to make all speech sounds in every language of the world. Through interactions with her environment, she sorts out which sounds have meaning and which don’t. For something to be interactive, there needs to be give and take. Baby makes a raspberry at mom. Mom laughs and smiles and makes it back to her. Baby makes another raspberry and mom laughs again. Baby is learning about social play, imitation and the back-and-forth nature of language. The problem with technology is that it might be labeled “interactive,” but in reality it’s all give and no take.

In an article at Slate.com, Lisa Gurnsey points to a Georgetown study done using the Baby Mozart video. Researchers studied a group of mothers to discover how often they interacted with their children while watching the video. They found that while some mothers had a high interaction rate with their babies during the video, others said little to nothing at all. Gurnsey writes:

“The varied parenting styles of the Georgetown study come to mind whenever I read about stories about whether apps and videos can “teach” babies and toddlers. Previous studies—many that have nothing to do with electronic media and a smaller subset that investigate the use of baby videos and video books—have shown that social interactions and verbal exchanges are at the root of language learning in kids this age. Some researchers theorize that if interactive media can elicit verbal exchanges and other social interactions between parents and kids, it has the potential to contribute to this learning.” (Emphasis mine)

Gurnsey’s point, which I happen to agree with, is that it’s not the video or app that’s the problem, it’s when parents walk away and expect the app to do all of the work. It’s like when a baby sits down to look at a board book, she explains. Alone, she’ll pick up some book looking skills, but if you sit down with her and interact, suddenly the learning potential explodes.

Screens are not the best place for babies and toddlers to learn new skills. Far better is one-on-one time with mom and dad—playing with a ball, reading a book, stacking blocks, playing dress up, taking a walk outside, cooking in the kitchen. This is where quality learning happens. Don’t run out and spend money on videos and apps hoping to raise your child’s IQ. But if your child loves to play on your mobile device from time to time and you want them to get something from it besides free shower time, here are some tips to help you turn it into a fun learning experience:

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Exaggerate. For baby to interact with you, you’ve got to be more interesting than the app. Exaggerate your facial expressions and your words. New talkers also pick up pretty quickly on interjections because they are so dramatic. Use wow, whoa, uh-oh, look, ready set go, etc.

Label, label, label: When you read baby a book, you point things out and label them. “Oh look, a cat! Nice cat! Cat says, ‘meow.’ Let’s pet the cat.” Pretty soon, baby learns to say “cat.” Do the same thing when you’re playing a learning app together.

Keep it age-appropriate. Sure, it’s a great party trick when your 1-year-old can say her ABCs, but there are far more important skills for her to learn at this age. Many apps push preschool skills like letters, colors and numbers way too early. Save those for the over-3 set and look for apps that build language instead.

Share your thoughts about learning apps with us in comments below.

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