Study: TV and computers bad for babies
For small children learning language skills, watching TV and using computers are no substitute for a parent's love and attention, according to a group of psychologists.
The childcare experts hammered home their message to parents at the world's biggest science conference in Vancouver, Canada.
All agreed that sitting toddlers in front of a TV or computer screen was unhelpful and may even obstruct their progress.
The group was discussing the problem of "late talkers" -- children who are slow to learn to talk and often held back in their educational development.
Studies suggest that between 6pc to 8pc of all children fall into this category. By the age of two, a child should have a vocabulary of at least 50 words and be attempting to put together a couple of sentences. However, some are still struggling to master words at three.
Although they often appear to recover, research has shown that impairments can show up in later teenage years.
The experts all made the point that passive listening does not provide the same stimulation as the to-and-fro interaction of personal contact.
Professor Nan Bernstein Ratner of the University of Maryland said: "There's been recent work distinguishing between overheard speech as opposed to speech directed to the child, and overheard speech is much less effective as a predictor of what children learn than time spent actually interacting with the child.
"We have a very durable body literature that suggests you can't substitute the kind of input that you give a child by plopping them in front of a television. That the child still needs to be engaged back and forth with another person in order to untangle language."
Colleague Professor Leslie Rescorla from Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, said: "Children really need to have people talk to them in order for them to acquire language. Not that they don't learn anything from television and videos but really they need language partners."
Professor Erika Hoff from Florida Atlantic University added that "brain training" computer programmes designed to stimulate children actually held them back.
"There was actually a study that found the more parents buy these things and the more hours their children stay in front of them as one-year-olds, the lower the children's use of language," she said.
Prof Rescorla described a word "checklist" she developed that could help parents and child psychologists spot late talkers.
The checklist consists of around 310 words including some of those used most often by young children.
"Parents are asked to check off every word their child says spontaneously," said Prof Rescorla.
Average-performing children can access around 250 to 300 words, she said, while late talkers only manage 25.
Late talkers tended to use the most common toddlers' words, such as "mummy", "daddy", "shoe", "dog" and "bye-bye".
The system was tested with a study in which children were monitored for a period of 15 years.
"What we found was that the children recovered from their language delay at varying rates," said Prof Rescorla.
"The not so good news was that after age 17 children performed significantly less well. So it looked as if what we were picking up at age two was a sub-clinical but enduring relative weakness in the area of verbal language development."