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Hot Topic: Babies and TV -- Tune In or Turn Off?

The "brainy baby industry" is putting out DVD after DVD, and they all claim to make your precious child even smarter. But do these programs really do what they say? Should baby watch TV or could it actually harm your little one?

Plus:
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Turn Off the Tube

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, M.D.
Seattle Children's Research Institute

Ok to Watch, If...

Dr. Deborah Linebarger, Ph.D.
Annenberg School of Communication at UPenn

"Thirty years ago, the average child began to watch television at age four. Today, it’s four months. Infancy is being technologized, and many parents are under the impression that it’s actually good for babies. But the evidence says otherwise. There’s no proof that television is good for infants’ brains."

“It really comes down to content, and TV shows with certain characteristics can be quite helpful to babies when used in moderation."

Missed Interaction

"The most important thing babies miss by watching TV are opportunities to interact with caregivers. We know from many years of developmental psychology research that there’s no substitute for human interaction during the critical window of the first three years. Interaction with adults is how babies learn language and social skills."

Parent Interaction

"Just like books or magnetic letters, DVDs can be used in combination with other things as a learning tool. But babies under two won’t get much out of sitting in front of the TV, just like you wouldn’t hand them a book and expect them to understand it. Certainly you can, but if you help them out, they’ll get so much more out of it."

Why Is Baby Watching?

"Ask yourself why you’re having your baby watch TV. If you’re doing it because you need a break and a minute to collect yourself, that’s one thing. But if you’re doing it because you think it’s good for baby’s brain -- and 30 percent of parents do say this is why their babies watch TV -- you should rethink things. The parent who believes it’s good for their baby is likely to let them watch much more. The average kid under two watches one to two hours of TV a day. Consider that babies that age are awake 10 to 12 hours, and you realize they’re spending 10 to 20 percent of their waking hours in front of a screen…and then you have to wonder what they’re not doing."

Context Makes a Difference

"Old studies showed that children could imitate tasks they saw in real life, but not tasks they watched on TV. (See the study) This suggested a video deficit -- babies have trouble understanding whether something televised is real. But more recent studies, which manipulate the way these videos are put together, are finding that the more similar a video is to real life (without cuts and jumping), the more babies can learn. Documentary-style shows that tell a story and use audience participation are the best type."

Developing Brains

"The brain triples in size during the first two years, and it’s all in reaction to direct stimulation. Everything you do in those years encourages your baby’s brain to develop. You’re helping to lay the groundwork of the mind, and you should help it grow in positive ways. There’s certain stimulation that’s fine and certain types that aren’t. Parents’ instincts are quite good. The right thing is simply just to be with your baby and interact, which is generally the first impulse.

Scientists are partly responsible. We succeeded in convincing people that the first three years of life are critical and that stimulation is good. This leads people to believe that if some is good and more is better, there’s no such thing as too much. The concern, though, is that these baby DVDs actually are too much. They’re too stimulating, with unnatural fast edits, scene changes, and all kinds of lights and sounds to keep baby’s attention. It’s not normative or natural. The more TV babies watch, the more likely they are to have attention problems later. (See the study) The pacing of these shows conditions infant minds to expect that pace in life, and by comparison, reality seems boring. So, the pacing of what they view is very important. The best thing to watch is home videos, which take place in real time and provide an opportunity to see friends and family.

We found that the more baby DVDs children aged 7 to 16 months watched, the fewer words they actually knew. (See the study) On average, for each hour of baby DVDs they watched per day, they knew six to eight fewer words. So really, there’s no demonstrated benefit at all from these DVDs, and the available evidence actually suggests there’s harm. And the word just hasn’t gotten out to parents."

The Best (and Worst) Baby Shows

"The best shows for babies have a narrative, storybook format (Eebee’s Adventures, Sesame Beginnings). These show the same idea -- say, rolling a ball -- in multiple contexts, with lots of repetition and language to describe what’s happening. Also good is anything with audience participation (Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer, Mr. Rogers), with characters looking directly at the screen, talking to the viewers, and leaving time to respond. These shows model turn-taking and utilize key language-promoting strategies.

The shows we find problematic use a magazine format and jump between unrelated scenes (Sesame Street, Barney). The idea that narrative is key suggests that babies have a real difficulty holding onto a story, and magazine-style shows seem to negatively impact language formation and aren’t appropriate for babies. Teletubbies was especially problematic. The show has really poor language models, and we found that the kids who watched a lot of it tended to use less sophisticated forms of language. Kids will learn what you show them; studies prove that babies can learn from televised models, so if you show them a poor language model, it can be a problem.

The data on Baby Einstein is mixed. If you choose to let your baby watch it, you should be there with your baby to learn from it, like you would a book. My biggest problem with these programs is that they tend to be really decontextualized. They flash pictures of chairs and tables and so forth without any context. Babies need this context, so if you’re going to show these videos, talk to your baby while they watch and help connect it to their real life."

False DVD Marketing

"The notion of baby DVDs has been foisted on parents as a way to make children smarter. This 'build a brainier baby' industry has spawned a lot of anxiety for parents. They’ll ask, 'If my baby doesn’t watch, will they be at a disadvantage?' And the answer is absolutely not.

Unfortunately, many baby video products are marketed with all kinds of claims about their benefits. Parents need to be aware that these claims are unsubstantiated. I’m not anti-television -- the truth is there are many ways media and TV can be a positive influence. Just not for infants. My recommendation is to try to minimize exposure to media as much as possible in the first two years."

Flawed Studies

"The studies we’ve seen about ADD and television viewing are flawed. (See the study) It all goes back to content. When you looked at what these babies were watching, the educational content was not correlated with ADD. And it was a correlational study.

You can say that ADD and television are related, but you can’t say television causes ADD. It could mean that parents let kids who have ADD watch more TV because it gives the parents a break. And that recent study about language development and baby DVDs has methodological problems. (See the study) It allowed parents to define programming categories, and my definition of educational programming may be different than yours."

Positive Alternatives

"Parents will ask me, 'If they’re not watching, how else will I cook dinner?' People have cooked dinner before TVs were invented. It’s certainly possible. What about putting your infant on the kitchen floor while you cook? Parents think this isn’t interacting, but it is. Kids have a way of getting what they need, and parents have a way of doing it. A six-month-old who’s rattling pots on the floor will still get an occasional smile from a parent cooking dinner, and that’s important."

Watch Realistically

"We have to get away from the debate of good versus bad because it makes parents crazy. I understand why the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) has said no TV for kids under two, but I don’t think that’s helpful. Instead, they should say, 'Based on new research, if you’re going to use TV, this is what you should be doing.' The current recommendation came out in 1999, and it’s time to get more realistic about it."

Dr. Dimitri Chistakis, M.D., is a professor of peadiatrics in the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute and author of The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work For Your Kids.


Dr. Deborah Linebarger, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and an assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication at the Univerysity of Pennsylvania.