Babies and screen time might not be all bad - as long as they have a friend

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Do babies learn anything from screen time? According to a new study, the answer may well be yes - but it helps if they're paired with another bub.

Why? Well, according to the findings published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)having a buddy not only helps by showing us how to do things, but it also gives us a little more motivation for learning.

"What this study introduces for the first time is that part of the reason we learn better when we learn collaboratively is that a social partner increases arousal, and arousal in turn increases learning," says lead author Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington.

Babies were assigned to one of two conditions - watching alone or with a peer.
Babies were assigned to one of two conditions - watching alone or with a peer. Photo: University of Michigan

Previous research has found that young children's learning of language material from video is low compared with learning from humans, a pattern known as the "video deficit effect". And yet, evidence also suggests that it's not the screen per se, that impedes kids' learning, but the lack of "interactivity" in traditional media.

So what happens when you make the learning environment more interactive?

To examine this, Kuhl and her colleagues recruited a group of 31 nine-month-old babies. Bubs were divided into two groups - the first where they watched a video alone, and the second where they watched with a peer. Babies were shown an infant foreign-language phonetic learning video which they were able to control via a touch screen. Each time they touched the screen, it initiated a short clip of a Mandarin speaker talking about toys and books. 

The researchers found neural evidence of early language learning in infants who watched the videos with a peer, compared to those who watched alone. But as well as having a buddy, novelty was also key - the more often babies were paired with new partners, the better their results. These bubs "chatted" more and demonstrated more "mature brain processing of speech", according to the authors.

And the findings weren't due to the number of videos watched, the amount of exposure to the language, or the bubs' motor abilities.

"The present results support previous findings highlighting the importance of social interaction for children's learning, especially for learning from screen media," the authors note, adding that their work "breaks ground" by demonstrating the role social arousal may play in early language learning.

So there you go. Two babies may be better than one when it comes to infant language learning via a screen. It might be a small study and further research is needed - but it's worth a try next time you and a fellow mama are after a few minutes' peace. Right?