As parents scramble to find the perfect gifts for their children this Christmas, new research suggests that electronic toys that light up, talk or play music might slow language development in toddlers.
These pricey toys may seem ideal for developing minds, but researchers at Northern Arizona University said they found just the opposite: when toys talk and sing, babies don't.
"These results provide a basis for discouraging the purchase of electronic toys that are promoted as educational and are often quite expensive," according to the report published in the Dec. 23 online edition of JAMA Pediatrics.
The study involved 26 pairs of parents and their children aged 10 months to 16 months. Using audio equipment, the researchers recorded the sounds in the participants' homes to monitor their playtime.
Each family received three sets of toys. The first set included electronic toys, such as a baby laptop, a talking farm and a baby cell phone. The second set contained traditional toys, including wooden puzzles, a shape-sorter and rubber blocks with pictures. The participants also received five board-books with farm animal, shape or color themes.
The electronic toys that talked, lit up and sang songs were less beneficial for language development than the traditional toys or books, the researchers said. These flashy and popular playthings produced a lower quantity and quality of language among the babies than other traditional toys, the study revealed.
While the children were playing with electronic toys, their parents spoke less. There were also fewer verbal exchanges between the parents and their babies, and the parents responded less often to the kids. The babies were also less vocal and produced fewer content-specific words while playing with noisy electronic toys, the researchers, who were led by Anna Sosa, said in a journal news release.
Books, on the other hand, produced the most verbal exchanges between parents and their babies, the investigators found.
"These results add to the large body of evidence supporting the potential benefits of book reading with very young children. They also expand on this by demonstrating that play with traditional toys may result in communicative interactions that are as rich as those that occur during book reading," the study authors wrote.
The researchers acknowledged that their study was small and lacked diversity; most of the families came from similar backgrounds. But they suggested that parents with busy schedules should try to make the most of the quality time they do have with their young children.
"Electronic toys that make noises or light up are extremely effective at commanding children's attention by activating their orienting reflex. This primitive reflex compels the mind to focus on novel visual or auditory stimuli," Dr. Jenny Radesky, of the University of Michigan Medical School, and Dr. Dimitri Christakis, of Seattle Children's Hospital, wrote in a related editorial in the journal.
"Conversational turns during play do more than teach children language," the editorialists explained. "They lay the groundwork for literacy skills, teach role-playing, give parents a window into their child's developmental stage and struggles, and teach social skills such as turn-taking and accepting others' leads."
The bottom line: toys with lots of bells and whistles may be appealing, but they could actually prevent children from engaging in the world around them and making what they learn meaningful, Radesky and Dimitri concluded.