Breaking down the link between TV exposure and children’s vocabulary


New research suggests that the type of media with which children spend their time makes a difference in their vocabulary development. Viewed alone, the study tells an interesting story. But viewed in conjunction with other research, a different story may emerge.

A new study in the Journal of Children and Media surveyed 131 highly-educated parents of children ages 6 months to 3 years old in the UK. Parents answered questions about how much time on a typical day their child spends with TV, using a device (like a tablet or smart phone), and reading or being read to. Here’s the not so surprising result: Reading is related to better vocabulary among young children, while time with TV and devices is not.

At the same time, the study’s authors said, time with TV and devices is also not related to worse vocabulary. The authors suggest, “as long as time spent reading is not reduced in place of television and mobile touchscreen activities, children’s media exposure should not adversely affect their vocabulary size.”

Viewed alone, I think that’s a reasonable claim to make based on a single study. The authors did their work. But studies like this always have a “limitations” section, and the authors wisely point out that further research is needed. Indeed, viewed as part of a broader picture, the results of this study have the potential to mislead parents who don’t have access to other research that seems to contradict these findings. For example, consider the following from other research:

  • Much of children’s TV viewing occurs with a coviewing parent.
  • One predictor of young children’s early literacy skills is mother-child communication, and mother-child communication decreases in the presence of TV compared to book reading.
  • This study admittedly did not compare educational and entertainment programs, which in the past have produced different results on a host of child outcomes, including young children’s vocabulary.

In other words, despite what this latest research shows, it’s possible that time spent watching certain forms of TV (non-educational TV) may very well have a negative effect on children’s vocabulary, especially when that TV exposure results in less mother-child communication, while other research (noted above) can lead to improvements in children’s vocabulary. And this point gets at the crux of how research is presented to the public. Most of the time, we only see the results of a single study, and it gets shared on social media and leads to incomplete ideas about media parenting. I suppose I’ve also shared such research in the past. This means it is incumbent on us to base our media parenting decisions on the combined research about a topic, instead of just on a single study.

This new study is a good one, and from everything I can tell, was rigorous and thoughtful. But it also illustrates how the way we talk about research and how we present it to parents can sometimes make it difficult for parents to come to accurate conclusions about how to incorporate research into their own parenting.

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