A Smart Approach to This Week's TV Turnoff

Good TV can help very young children build their vocabulary.

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Considering how much time we all spend watching TV, it's remarkable how little time scientists have devoted to figuring out what television does to us. Only recently have researchers started looking at how very small kids are affected by TV, despite the fact that Teletubbies, Barney, Baby Einstein, and other video fare for the pre-preschool set has been around seemingly forever.

Today marks the beginning of the 14th annual Turnoff Week, in which we're told to renounce television and computer screens in favor of wholesome activities like family dinners, reading, and sex. (Grown-ups only on that last one, please.) So it's a good time to catch up on what the research is showing. Harried parents, rejoice: The news is not all bad! TV, done right, not only keeps children out of our hair, it also helps toddlers and preschoolers with language acquisition and other skills. The bad news: The wrong kinds of shows slow acquisition of those skills, including reading. (If you want to think really bad, think TV in the kid's bedroom, which is associated with all kinds of trouble, from obesity to bad grades.)

What's good? Shows with a story line, such as Arthur or Clifford, and shows that invite participation, like Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues.

On the other hand, small children who watch nonlinear fare like Brainy Baby or Baby Einstein videos or Teletubbies are more likely to have smaller vocabularies and use fewer words when speaking, says Deborah Linebarger, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In one new study, parents told her that their toddlers learned more words while watching Baby Einstein-type videos. But when the researchers tested the children, they found the kids had mastered fewer words than their non-TV-tutored peers. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. Linebarger's own 22-month-old is a huge fan of Super Why!, a new PBS show that uses stories to encourage preschoolers to get ready to read. "She will sit transfixed," says Linebarger, "and I can actually do her hair."

Children seem to start really understanding what's going on with TV when they're around 2½—not surprisingly, a time when kids are really starting to figure out language. Dan Anderson, a leading researcher on kids' TV, says it's also a question of "media literacy," or realizing that television is a communications medium, not real life. When adults watch TV, he says, we all focus on the same part of the screen at the same time—we know where the important part of the action is. Four-year-olds have pretty well got that figured out, too. He's now studying 12-month-old babies and has found that when watching TV, their eyes are "all over the place"—they haven't yet learned what's important in the visual story. So parking infants in front of the TV might not hurt them (as long as you're not watching Sopranos reruns or other violent fare), but it won't do them any good, either.

Parents needn't freak out, says Lisa Guernsey, a journalist and mother of two in Alexandria, Va., who wrote the book Into the Minds of Babes last year after realizing that there was precious little practical guidance for parents on the pros and cons of tot TV, aside from the American Academy of Pediatrics's "no TV before age 2" edict. She has a simple "Three C's" test that parents can use for assessing the suitability of TV: content, context, and your child. Content is pretty obvious. Context comes down to: Is the TV droning on in the background all the time? This has been shown to interfere with children's playtime and to cut into parent-child interaction. Most important, of course, is your child. Is Snow White too scary for your preschooler? I know one who hasn't yet made it past the first 10 minutes of Finding Nemo. So we've put that video away for another day.