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Amazon’s Alexa, educational Netflix shows, and interactive iPad games can open up a world of learning and communication for young children, MIT researchers said, but a recent study shows none of them can replace human conversation when it comes to early brain development.

An MIT study, published Wednesday, determined that one of the most effective ways to stimulate children’s brains from a young age is back-and-forth conversation, said Rachel Romeo, one of the study’s lead researchers.

“It’s not good enough to talk to your child and dump words into their brains,” she said. “They need to be involved, and you need to talk with them and converse back and forth.”


The study, conducted by a team from the McGovern Research Institute for Brain Research at MIT, evaluated 36 Boston-area children, ages 4 to 6, in a variety of language and cognitive assessments, Romeo said. The researchers tracked the children’s brain activity while listening to stories and recorded their auditory environments, Romeo said.

When the children had active conversations with their parents, the researchers saw a greater response in their Broca’s area, one of two major language areas of the brain, Romeo said.

This is good news for parents, she said.

After a 1995 study revealed that on average, children in low-income households hear 30 million fewer words than children in high-income households by the time they’re 3 years old, many lower-income parents became concerned about possible lasting differences in their children’s language performances, she said. The 1995 study meant that, generally, children in poorer communities were already behind when they started kindergarten.

But now researchers are saying the active conversations, where children are verbally responding to their parents and vice versa, are much more important — regardless of parents’ annual income or educational background.

“We think that it’s because back-and-forth conversation is not only about hearing more words, it’s also about practicing paying attention to someone else and involves lots of emotional and social bonding,” said John Gabrieli, an MIT professor and another one of the study’s researchers. “They’re all traveling together at once.”


Finding that active conversations go a very long way has been reassuring, Romeo said.

“It’s an actionable target for trying to close the achievement gap and give children the best brain development,” Romeo said. “Socioeconomic status is something that’s very hard to change, but the amount of conversation you have with your child is something that’s easier to change on a daily basis.”

But there are parents who increasingly allow their kids to pass time with their eyes glued to screens, Gabrieli said, and that technology just doesn’t have the same emotional power as human conversation.

He acknowledged that conversational time can be challenging for some families depending on schedules but said even a “little bit every day” makes a difference.

“Screen time just won’t make up for the human connection with human speech,” he said. “Nothing yet has this complex set of emotional, social, and intellectual blend.”

Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elisetakahama.