29 August 2017 16:31

Watching television or playing with smart phone apps does not have any effect on children’s language development – providing they still spend time reading, researchers have found.

A study from the University of Salford and Lancaster University, published in the Journal Of Children And Media, has found that as long as parents or carers spend time reading with young children, and this time is not reduced in place of television or touchscreen devices such as iPads, children’s exposure to these media should have no effect on the size of their vocabulary.

A team of researchers from the University of Salford and the ESRC International Centre for Language and Cognitive Development at Lancaster University used online questionnaires to get data from 131 parents of children aged 6-36 months.

The parents were asked a series of questions about the amount of time on a typical day their children spend watching TV, using devices such as smart phones or tablets, or either reading or having stories read to them.

They were also asked to complete the UK Communicative Development Inventory (CDI) – a detailed checklist of words from different categories such as animals, household items and food and drink which their children were able to say and understand.

Of the families surveyed, 99 per cent of children were read to daily, 82 per cent watched television and 49 per cent used mobile touchscreen devices daily.

The researchers found a positive relationship between the amount of time children spent reading or being read to and their vocabulary size, but time spent watching television or using mobile devices had no relationship – as this reading time was not offset by time in front of screens. 

Professor Padraic Monaghan, Co-Director of Centre for Language and Cognitive Development at Lancaster University, said: "This study confirms that reading a book with a young child is one of the most important ways in which language learning can be supported. Though the way in which we communicate is changing with new media, there is still no better way than reading books together to promote children's communication."

Dr Gemma Taylor from the University of Salford, said: “Children are now growing up in a digital age surrounded by a wide range of media, and scrolling across the screen of a tablet is as natural for a three-year-old as flicking through a picture book.

“Mobile touchscreen use among children is also increasing, and there is some concern that this is taking the place of time spent between children and parents which is crucial to language development.

“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.

“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.”

The research also involved Professor Gert Westermann, Professor of Psychology at Lancaster University.