When Baby Apps Actually Lead to Learning

The lessons of Baby Einstein.

The baby and the iPad.
What media means to babies almost entirely depends on how it is being used and talked about by the adults and siblings around them.

Photo by Victor Saboya/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed its “baby app” complaints last month with the Federal Trade Commission, my first thought came with a depressed sigh: Here we go again.

Six years ago, the CCFC filed a similar complaint against two baby video companies—Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby. They argued that parents were being bamboozled into thinking that the videos would make their infants and toddlers smarter. Three years later, Baby Einstein—then owned by the Walt Disney Co.—said it would issue refunds. Advocacy groups cheered, and many early childhood teachers walked away with a sense of satisfaction and victory.

I didn’t. Sure, I appreciated that some parents received training on how to be skeptical about aggressive marketing claims. We could all use reminders of that. But looking at the bigger picture—wanting to help parents recognize their own power to help their little tots learn new words and ideas without feeling the need to spend $40 on a set of videos—it seemed that little had been accomplished. Having spent several years reviewing and writing about the research on whether babies can learn from video, I watched with increasing frustration as the Baby Einstein dispute unfolded. The early investigations into whether children under 3 can learn from video were still inconclusive, but that didn’t mean that there was nothing to go on. Burrowing into research on how babies learn to talk, listen, and explore, I had started to see electronic media, and even print media, very differently.

What media means to children at these very young ages almost entirely depends on context—on how it is being used and talked about by the adults and siblings around them. Consider a situation where a child presses something that shows a picture of a cow to hear it moo. This could be an app, a plastic busy box toy, or a book with embedded sounds.

Now picture two mothers. One mother hands the busy box to her child and says, “Can you find the cow? What does a cow say?” Her child looks at her, and she points to the cow picture. She presses it and smiles as she turns to look at him again. “Moo! Can you say moo? Let’s say moo. Moo!”

The other mother takes a different approach. She just hands the child the toy and walks away.

It’s the “walk away” part that no one likes. That’s where the childhood advocacy groups become concerned. But that is happening with regular toys and busy boxes, too. It’s happening with board books. It’s happening with children who otherwise receive lots of love and nurturing interaction throughout the day. And it’s happening with children who are starved for attention and given nothing more to do than gaze at the side of their playpens for hours at a time.

In the mid-2000s, researchers at Georgetown University conducted a study with 110 babies, 6 months to 18 months of age. They wanted to find out how much parents interacted with their babies while watching 13 minutes of Baby Mozart. The study, led by Ashley Fidler, Elizabeth Zack, and Rachel Barr, recorded how many times parents asked questions and labeled objects on the screen. They were looking for evidence of shared focus and turn-taking—instances when parents and children “talked” together about the media they were watching. Many of the babies were not yet speaking, but they were babbling, looking at the screen and making other utterances in response.

The researchers found that interactions varied greatly, even though the mothers came from a relatively homogenous socio-economic group, with incomes reported in the middle-to-upper levels. Some moms barely talked to their children at all when the video was on. One never uttered a word. Others were highly interactive, with multiple exchanges of pointing, labeling, and turn-taking. The child’s age made a difference, too, with verbal exchanges more likely among the 12- to 18-month-olds, the ages when most children are starting to produce words.

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.

Writing about the Georgetown study in the journal Infancy, researchers concluded that “parents have an important role to play” and that “caregiver verbal input may enhance the infant’s ability to process” what he is seeing on screen.

Are apps necessary to elicit these social interactions? Of course not. But the same could be said of baby board books—those stiff-paged books with colorful pictures that early childhood advocates love. It’s not a given that these books will lead parents to talk with their children. What we like about them is that they give parents ideas for questions to ask their children. They spur parents to utter new words and ideas and to elaborate on what they mean. They prompt conversation.

In the debate over whether apps can teach, we should be asking deeper questions than whether the name of an app is misleading parents by using the words learn or educate. For sure, skepticism is warranted when a company claims that an app by itself will “educate” or “teach,” or that babies will become smarter by simply interacting with an app. (Open Solutions, one of the companies targeted by the CCFC, has since removed the word teach from the descriptions of its apps, and the CCFC has removed Open Solutions from its complaint.) But in addition to holding companies accountable, don’t we also want to help parents figure out whether different types of media are good for their children?

If so, we need to talk about how the apps might be used. Are they nothing more than baby occupiers, or could they be conversation starters? And isn’t it possible they could be baby occupiers at one point in the day and conversation starters another? It’s this ratio between noninteraction and interaction that should be propelling debates over whether apps are helpful or harmful to babies. Let’s focus on what fosters healthy interactions between babies and their caregivers—whether an app is part of the picture or not.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.