Down the Tube: Videos for Tots Don't Aid Learning
Despite the popularity of baby-genius DVDs, there's no evidence they boost intellect
For many parents, TV is the ultimate baby sitter; 68 percent of children under age 2 watch two hours or more of TV each day, a recent survey found. But almost no research has been done on the effect of TV watching on the Pampers set. In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers in Seattle say that tots who watch Baby Einstein- or Brainy Baby-type videos lagged in language acquisition.
The finding highlights the growing disconnect between pediatricians, who say that children younger than age 2 should watch no TV at all, and parents, many of whom embrace baby-genius DVDs and videos in the hope of giving their offspring an early leg upor giving themselves a few minutes to do the laundry.
Andrew Meltzoff, a psychologist who is codirector of the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, says parents of babies he sees at the center almost always ask about the videos. A parent's typical comment, he says, is" 'Everyone in my child's care group has baby DVDs, and I'm worried that my child will fall behind if I don't have them watch.' " So he looked into it, and he found that for each hour a day that 8-to-16-month-old babies watched baby videos, their language development lagged by 16 percent. The results were published in the August Journal of Pediatrics.
The videos, Meltzoff says, are "really being passed around as if they're brain food for your baby, and it's just not true." Babies are awake and alert only a small fraction of the day, and time in front of the TV, he says, is time not spent listening to stories, playing with siblings, or banging on pots and pans. Babies are intensely interested in people's faces and voices, and parents instinctively exaggerate eye contact, inflection, and gestures when speaking to them. By contrast, the baby videos typically feature short scenes of swirling colors and images, accompanied by the music of Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart. "You're taking time away from social interaction when you put your baby in front of the television," Meltzoff says.
Parents and educators have been debating television's effect on children pretty much since the first broadcast. The notion of educational TV gained traction in 1969 with the launch of Sesame Street, which was aimed at helping preschoolers learn their ABCs. Since then, research has vindicated that premise, showing that programs like Sesame Street, Blue's Clues, and Barney & Friends do have educational value for children ages 2½ to 5.
But in recent years, producers and marketers have turned their efforts from preschoolers to the preverbal. And parents have followed. In 1997, the BBC debuted Teletubbies; the babbling, infantlike characters have TVs in their tummies. That year, Julie Aigner-Clark, a mother and entrepreneur, launched the Baby Einstein Co. Competitors have since jumped in. In 2006, for example, Sesame Workshop introduced Sesame Beginnings, with baby versions of Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster. Most tout educational benefits in their advertising and labeling.