Kids' language skills hindered when parents check their phones, study finds

Matt Sayles/AP

Researchers know that strong language skills don’t just come from the quantity of words a kid hears, but also from the quality of interactions between parents and kids—the back and forth in a conversation.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Temple University Infant and Child Laboratory in Philadelphia, studies this issue, and found that one of the most common things that disrupts this back and forth is cellphones.

Hirsh-Pasek sat down with KPCC’s Devin Browne to explain why.

Why language skills matter

Language skills are the single best predictor of how well you’re going to do in readiness for kindergarten and beyond — the complexity of words you use in a conversation, and the nature of that conversation, turn out to be critically important in predicting virtually everything. It relates to your later math score, who would have guessed? It relates to this thing that we call executive function, which is attention and memory and planning and flexibility. It relates to your social skills, because you can’t be as social if you don’t have good communication skills. So if you want to find that kind of crucible on which a lot rests, it’s early language. And language itself rests on not just hearing enough, but also hearing it with the quality of engagement that builds conversational skills — joint engagement.

Why cellphones can be so disruptive to language development

Let’s just remember the last dinner you were at with your buds. You’re having that back and forth conversation and your friend gets a text and you see them glance down as if you’re not supposed to notice. But you notice, and it cuts the conversation. We’ve now studied that — we studied it with two year-olds. So if you have that back and forth conversation, the kids do well. If you break that conversation with a cellphone call or looking at a text what happens is you break the ability for this very important back and forth to happen and the kids don’t learn.

What about other kinds of interruptions?

We’re now testing other kinds of interruptions. The hypothesis is if both people zoom towards some interruption that they both notice like a doorbell ring or an alarm, then they both come back, you can continue the conversation as was. But if it’s something that takes one person away, while the other person’s stranded, then it breaks the learning and it breaks the momentum. Two-year-olds were keenly aware of this.

What it all means

What [this new study] suggests to us is that the differences that have been reported that are always about the low-income versus the middle-income kids — while things will trend in that direction, it’s a slightly more complicated more picture. It’s really not about middle, upper, lower. It’s really about how parents interact with kids, and those who did a better job of creating a conversation or what we call “the conversational duet”— those people have kids who are going to fare better a year later. And what are they going to fare better in? Language. You’re going to be able to predict the course of their future as they stand in the doorstep of formal schooling.

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