April 01, 2015
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TVs, DVDs, and Babies
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TVs, DVDs, and Babies


We are surrounded by televisions, DVD players, and computer screens in our homes, cars, workplaces, and recreation sites. Our children, whether intentionally or incidentally are exposed to hours of video programming, some of which is age-appropriate and some, not at all appropriate.

What happens when babies watch videos? Do they learn anything? Does it help or hurt their development? Does learning from screens differ from learning from personal interactions? What do we really know about the effects of our intensely screen-oriented lives and how can we use that information to benefit our children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics, reacting to concerns about the language development of young children, recommended that babies less than two years of age watch no television at all.

In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics, reacting to concerns about the language development of young children, recommended that babies less than two years of age watch no television at all(1). While this is not a commonly followed guideline, research continues to indicate that it is a very important one.

Screen Time Is Rising, But Learning is Not

There have been many, many studies on the prevalence and impact of screen-based media on infants and children. In 2007, researchers surveyed 1009 parents about the viewing habits of their less than two-year-old children. They found that by age three months, about 40% of the children in the study group regularly watched TV, DVDs or videos and by 24 months of age only 10% of the group did not. The average viewing time was 1 hour per day among babies under one year old. This increased to an average of 1.5 hours per day by age two years.(2)

At the end of the six weeks, all the children – those viewing "educational" videos and those who didn't — had made the language gains a normally-developing child would be expected to achieve over that time period. In other words, the videos had no beneficial impact.

A recent study, published in the March issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, assessed whether very young babies actually learn from DVDs designed to teach them vocabulary words. They divided a group of ninety-six babies, ages 12-15 months into two groups. Half the group watched a video, five times a week for six weeks from the Baby Einstein series that was designed and marketed to teach children 30 specific vocabulary words. The other half did not watch the teaching video, but otherwise followed their normal routines of video and TV viewing.

The parents in both groups were aware of the words being surveyed and were told to follow their typical routines of interacting with their children when watching videos. Every two weeks, both groups of infants were evaluated for their progress in learning the 30 targeted words.

The parents were asked which words the babies understood and which ones they uttered. The babies were asked to pick the correct object from a pair of pictures, one of which depicted a target word. At the end of the six week period, the children had all made the language gains that a normally developing child would be expected to achieve over that time period but, there were no differences between the two groups in the numbers of words understood, uttered, or picked from a pair of pictures. The investigators concluded that watching the teaching video had not made any difference in word learning.(3)

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