When my son Ariel was born in 1999, technology hadn’t yet taken over our adult lives. We had a largely tech free household, and read books all the time. As time went on, technology crept in. Ariel played more online games and read less. And yet, despite my fears, there was no million word gap or irreparable lag in vocabulary here. Why? Because we filled the hours of his early childhood with incredibly rich language together.

A recent JAMA Pediatrics study compared the amount of language used between parents and children when playing with electronic toys (baby laptop, talking farm and cell phone), traditional toys (puzzle, shape sorter and blocks with picture) and board books (farm animal, shape, and color themes). The results were clear: The number of parent/child interactions were greatest when reading books, somewhat less when playing with traditional toys, and fewest when using electronic toys. The study concludes, “Both play with traditional toys and book reading can be promoted as language-facilitating activities while play with electronic toys should be discouraged.”

Although the study was quite small, the findings still send a strong message to parents of young children. We know that Infants and toddlers spend the first three years of life growing vocabulary, and that a language deficit in kindergarten haunts children forever; they never catch up. If we miss the linguistic window of opportunity, the opportunity for learning shrinks drastically. Early language acquisition is a high stakes issue for parents who may not even understand the risks.

The importance of face-to-face learning

Research conducted by the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, led by Patricia Kuhl, points to an especially relevant finding. Six-month-olds are equally able to learn all languages of the world if they are taught face to face. Learning from a recording or a DVD does not have nearly the same impact.

Face-to-face language learning in infancy even has an impact into adulthood. English speaking infants exposed to Japanese will have an easier time learning the language as adults. The sound system, when introduced to an infant face to face, remains etched somewhere in the brain, recalled 20 years later.

And while many of us are familiar with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 1999 policy statement which discouraged media exposure for children under 2, this year the AAP updated that policy, saying there was no evidence of educational or developmental benefits to media use, but rather potential for “adverse health and developmental effects.” They also added warnings about the impact of television as background noise, and of children watching adult programs. How much exposure, when and what kind, all play a role in the impact on children under two.

With all of this evidence now in front of us about the negative impact of media use on very young children, and yet a world full of electronic candy dangling before us, what is a realistic family response? The AAP asserts that “If parents choose to engage their young children with electronic media, they should have concrete strategies to manage it.”

Balancing screentime in your child's early years

As a mom and an educator who has struggled with these issues for years, here’s a few suggestions in achieving some balance:

  1. Use age as a guide. The younger the child, the lesser the media. Your control over a child’s learning environment decreases with age. Take advantage of the first two years as a sacred time. Try to keep up your good work until they enter kindergarten.
  2. Emphasize the face-to-face. Spend as much face to face time talking to your young child as possible. Work schedules, chores, caring for siblings—all of this pulls us away from direct interaction with infants and toddlers. Fight for it. Every word counts in the early years, but especially until they are three.
  3. Squeeze reading in to the crevices of your life. Visit your library once a week. Keep a special basket of newly borrowed books. Buy the ones you love. Read in the bath, before bed, on the subway, on the potty, and sing as well.
  4. Use media selectively and with your child. Listening to music on YouTube, for example, introduces new experiences that are valuable.
  5. Lead by example. Wherever possible check email and use the internet when your child is asleep.
  6. Lean on your partner. Between you and your partner make sure that one of you spends face time with baby while the other uses technology.
  7. Be realistic. Don’t beat yourself up when you need to use technology to help you get things done. Take the shower, do the dishes, and move life forward. You have to stay sane, especially with more than one child.

The AAP has asked pediatricians to talk with parents about making a media plan to lay out a framework for technology in the home. Consider outlining a plan so at least you can clarify where you stand as a family. You might not abide by it, but you’ll do much better if you are accountable to your own sense of what’s best rather than annoying advice from an outsider like me.

You are your child’s best teacher. On the floor, in the stroller, out and about and in the home, your words are what matter most. Your reign as the uncontested beloved ends sooner than you imagine, and once it does, a flood of influences take your place. Use your time and your words wisely.