A child development expert reveals how listening to podcasts could affect your kid

Miquel Benitez/GettyIs baby going to learn about the world from Radiolab or This American Life?
  • Researchers have looked into how parents’ TV-watching habits affect their kids, but there’s not much research on how listening to a podcast or radio show influences childhood development.
  • It’s likely that playing a podcast in the background would not be as disruptive to kids as television.
  • But parents shouldn’t expect that young children are learning about the world by listening to informative podcasts, either.

Being a parent comes with millions of questions.

Many of the most anxiety-provoking ones fall into a simple category: “How is whatever I’m doing affecting my child?”

That question even applies to what parents do to relax.

Research suggests that even having a television on in the background can have lasting negative effects on kids’ language development – especially if it’s running for hours every day. The flashing light and varied noises from a TV are designed to draw attention, so they can interrupt children’s play, which is valuable learning time. Watching TV can also make parents less likely to interact with young children, which is crucial for development as well.

But what about the rapidly growing world of podcasts and audio storytelling? Is it equally disruptive for a parent to listen to a podcast while a child plays? Or might kids learn from what they hear?

There aren’t many studies that directly address how audible entertainment like podcasts or talk radio affects young children, according to Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician who specialises in child development.

Radesky is the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’Media and Young Minds policy, and said this lack of research may be a sign that there aren’t major concerns.

“I think scientists have been less worried about the disruptive aspects” of audio storytelling, she said.

Podcasts and parenting

Podcasts are often created to be seamless and pleasing to listen to, with less attention-grabbing features than TV. That suggests the programs are less likely to distract a child who is actively playing. But what about the effect of podcasts on parental attention?

“It’s possible that when a parent’s attention is really absorbed in a podcast, they’re trying to listen to a story or learn about science, it’s going to be hard for them to respond to children’s cues also,” Radesky said. “But on the other hand, I think it’s also really important for parents to feel enriched … so I don’t have as strong of an opinion as to whether they should listen to podcasts.”

As any parent knows, childcare often involves intense days that begin early and require hour after hour of focused interaction with someone who they adore but who is definitely not yet a good conversationalist. If listening to a podcast is a way to recharge while a child plays or does something else, there’s likely value in that.

“Parents seek [an audio show] out either for pleasure or for learning and parents deserve that,” Radesky said. “You can usually pause and attend to something that a child might need.”

Learning from listening

Along with an ever-growing list of great podcasts for adults, there’s been an explosion in child-focused audio shows lately, including Story Pirates and Tumble. But while older kids might learn from and enjoy the content, younger ones (up to two years old) probably won’t get any benefit.

Research indicates that recorded voices don’t mean much to very young children, since they process language best when it comes from a person who is reacting to cues the baby is giving, according to Radesky.

Studies have tested whether a child can better distinguish Chinese language tones if recorded Chinese voices were played to them when they were very young, but the results showed that recordings don’t offer the same benefits of hearing and seeing a real person speak.

A child will start to really process audio, like a book on tape, around the age of three or four. But even in case, Radesky said kids will still probably benefit most if an adult is there to explain the story and answer questions.

Choosing when, whether, and how to listen

Prince georgeChris Jackson/Getty ImagesThey watch and learn.

Although playing an occasional podcast may have little impact on young children, many of us play podcasts from our smartphones – and Radesky recommends that parents remain aware of how absorbed in a phone we become.

Radesky researches how mobile devices affect kids, and some of her work on the topic has revealed that children’s behaviour changes when parents start staring at their phones. Some kids quiet down and stare into space, others begin to act up.

Other studies have shown that parents of kids with behaviour problems are more likely to spend more time on their phones. It’s possible those kids act out more because they want parental attention, but it’s also possible that those parents are using their phones to take a break from their kids.

Like children, adults need to find balance when using technology. Choosing when to turn on a podcast should therefore be a conscious decision, Radesky said – it’s OK to listen as a way to stave off boredom or relieve stress, but we shouldn’t interrupt important bonding, and meals and joint play time should stay focused on real interaction.

“If we start to feel more self-awareness about what’s driving our media use behaviours it helps us be more reflective,” said Radesky. We can figure out “what parts of that [use] are good and fulfilling and which parts are starting to disrupt things.”

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