For Parents

For Parents

Educational Shows and Apps: Are they all they claim to be?

A review of new research on toddlers’ abilities to learn from screen media.

What do we know already?

Open the App Store on your smartphone or tablet, search for educational apps for kids, and you could scroll through the results for hours. Last year, over 80,000 apps were labeled as educational, without much research to back it up. Likewise, many TV shows created for young children claim to teach them new words, how to count, and even how to read. Yet, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents avoid exposing children under the age of 18 months to media (outside of video chatting, got to keep in touch with the grandparents!). Between the ages 2-5, it is suggested that children not have more than 1 hour of screen time per day. This gap between the claims of media and the suggestions of the American Academy of Pediatric can be explained by the lack of research to show if and how children learn from screens. A few researchers from universities across the country teamed up to find out if toddlers can learn new words from screen media.


What did they study?

176 toddlers participated in this experiment. Half of the children (the younger group) were approximately 2 years old. The other half (the older group) were approximately 2.5 years old. Each child was taught a made-up word for an unfamiliar object. The made-up word they used was “modi.”

The children were divided into four groups. Each group learned the word in a different way.

  1. Responsive live- This group learned from a person interacting with them in the same room. The person used the child’s name and paused when the child got distracted.
  2. Unresponsive live- This group also learned from a person in the room with them. However, this person acted like someone on a TV screen. They did not call the child by name and did not pause when the child got distracted.
  3. Responsive video- This group learned from a person over a video screen. The interaction resembled a video chat because the person used the child’s name and paused when the child got distracted.
  4. Unresponsive video- This group learned from a pre-recorded scripted video. The video used a script that did not include the child’s name, and the video was not paused when the child got distracted. This interaction resembles learning from a TV show.

After the interaction all of the toddlers were asked to, “Show me the modi.” This allowed the experimenters to see which children successfully learned the new word.


What did they find?

All of the toddlers learned the new word from the person who was in the room and engaged with them (group 1). This confirms what we already know; that children learn best from us (parents, grandparents, therapists, babysitters) when we are fully present and interacting with them. The older group of toddlers also learned the new word when the person was in the room, but not completely responsive to them (group 2). This suggests that as children mature, they may begin to learn from the things they overhear but are not directly taught. As for the videos, no reliable learning was observed. This means even though some children in these groups may have correctly identified the “modi,” this was likely due to chance or luck.


What should I take away?

Given this information, we can have better expectations for whether toddlers can learn words from media.

  • When you can, watch the media with your child. Talk about what you see happening in the show or practice turn-taking while playing on an app together. This way, your child can still learn new skills from their engagement with you. Siblings are great for this too!
  • Recognize that YOU are the one who can help your child learn. The TV shows and apps may not do all they claim to, but YOU can make a huge difference in your child’s learning. You can teach them new words by talking about the objects or actions that you and your child are interacting with together.
  • Let’s be real – media isn’t going away anytime soon. A limited amount of media is probably okay. Sometimes we just need to let children watch something so we can cook dinner or make that important phone call. The key is moderation! Try to stick to the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics posted here:
  • When you do choose to let your child have screen time, be picky in what you allow them to watch. Common Sense Media ( can help inform you about the different shows and apps out there, putting the control of what your child will see in your hands.



Troseth, G.L., Strouse, G.A., Verdine, B.N., & Saylor, M.M. (2018). Let’s Chat: On-Screen Social Responsiveness Is Not Sufficient to Support Toddlers’ Word Learning From Video. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1-10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02195

Children and Media Trips from the American Academy of Pediatrics. (5/1/2018). Retrieved February 18, 2019, from