Mark Adamyan was four when he started talking. His mother, Sona Hovhannisyan, still remembers his first word - mama.
But unlike other toddlers living in the Armenian capital Yerevan, he didn’t use the Armenian word, mayrik. Mark spoke Russian.
After mama, his second and third words—papa and solnechka (father and sun)—were also Russian.
Since the family speaks Armenian at home, Sona believes Mark, who is five now, learned Russian from cartoons, which he loves to watch online. Sona recalls that at one point, he even started translating what she said. For example, she often admonished him for sitting on the floor, telling him it was too cold. Mark would respond saying “xolodno”—Russian for cold.
At first, Sona says she and her husband were not really concerned. The issue coincided with the pandemic, and Sona thought it was likely that Mark’s love of cartoons, coupled with the lack of playtime with other children his age, amplified the impact.
But then doctors started to raise questions about Mark’s development. “Mark started talking late, but we were not worried at all. Our problem was society, from all sides people were urging us to take him to a speech therapist. There was more pressure on me because he … speaks another language,” Sona says.
Doctors were not much help, however. One even hinted Mark might be autistic and prescribed long therapy sessions.
But Sona decided to trust her instincts and see how Mark responded to being with Armenian-speaking peers in kindergarten. Now, back in class with other children his age, Mark has started speaking Armenian, as well.
“He is almost 5 years old, he communicates in both languages, thanks to the kindergarten and our efforts. The transition was easy for him," she says.
Mark watches his favorite cartoons on the family tablet device, a digital tool that has become part savior, part boogieman in modern society. The complicated role of these devices in society was amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic—especially the early lockdowns—as parents and children alike spent more time online.
Sona says that Mark loves to watch cartoons and if she does not set limits, he can watch all day. "If we leave his choice he will sit and watch the tablet and computer endlessly, but we have set three hours, which we distribute during the day and, for the most part, the limitations work,” she says.
A 2019 study found that from 1997 to 2014, the amount of time the average child age zero to two spends on a screen has doubled to three hours a day. The UNICEF report Children in the Digital Age states that one in three internet users in the world is a child.
Scientists know that the information children receive from screens, be it television or online programming, affects their brains. But despite years of studies, there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding of how much impact or if the effect is negative.
For Sona, everything has been positive so far.
“I think the Internet, with its problems, helps a lot in the case of languages, although of course the parent should control it,” she says, noting that she also makes sure Mark spends a lot of time with books and other resources.
"If he watches cartoons all the time, of course he will not develop, but if you go for sports, go for a walk, read books and fairy tales in parallel, live an active life, …[the knowledge from the internet] will be a great benefit for him.”
The director of the Mkhitar Sebastatsi educational complex in Yerevan, Susan Markosyan, is also convinced that the internet—when used as an educational resource—helps children develop.
"The internet accelerates the learning process; knowledge and access to information helps a person to develop faster. In all families, whether parents prefer computer education for their children or not, children are still connected to computers and information from the Internet,” she notes.
“Games, movies, cartoons, etc. have some influence on them one way or another. In our educational complex… that influence is simply planned and directed. Digital media is becoming an instrument of educational work.”
For 10-year-old Eva, a casual interest in children YouTube bloggers led her to consuming more Russian-language content. Before long, she found that not only did she understand what her favorite v-bloggers were saying, she felt more comfortable communicating in Russian than her native Armenian.
Today, her understanding of Russian has helped her develop a blog about animals, which she writes in Armenian.
"It is difficult for me to find the information I want in Armenian, there is not enough," she says. But there is plenty in Russian, so she goes online to get what she needs and then translates it into her native tongue.
Tamara Hovsepyan of Yerevan also notes that two of her three children—10-year-old Armen and 3-year-old Eva—are also more comfortable speaking in English or Russian, in large part because they use those languages online to find information about the topics that interest them.
Susan Markosyan, the director of Mkhitar Sebastatsi, believes the process is a natural one: children in every generation will use the tools they have to develop.
"The children of all generations are born conscious, ready to develop, to learn, because they quickly realize the educational tasks set before them - to speak, walk, communicate, learn, etc.,” she says.
“The tools are different. In any case, they use the tools of their time. In my opinion, today's generation, which uses today's opportunities, is just like the previous human generations, which did the same for their time.”