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. While this is not a commonly followed guideline, research continues to indicate that it is a very important one.
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.
The children with delays had tended to start watching TV about 10 months earlier than their peers with normal language development.
Another study determined that when infants watched television for two or more hours daily, before they were 12 months old, they were six times as likely to have delays in their language skills. Yet another research group found that for children younger than three, each hour of daily TV watching decreased the scores on standardized tests of language and understanding.
Finally, when researchers investigated the TV viewing habits of children who came in for evaluation of language delay, they found that the children with delays had tended to start watching TV about 10 months earlier than their peers with normal language development. This timing correlated with the time of speaking meaningful words.
The language-delayed children had started watching TV prior to speaking meaningful words, whereas the normally developing children had not started until after their first meaningful words were spoken.
This is most likely a reflection of immaturity of their brains and the fact that the thinking, perceiving, and reasoning skills necessary to obtain information from a flat screen are not fully formed. Other research has shown that children learn verbs better when the presentation is part of a social interaction. This may be because their brain's learning centers benefit from the stimulation of personal interactions.
The brain of a baby triples in size in the first two years of life, and during this time developmentally critical pathways are formed and reinforced, largely influenced by external stimulation.
Second, watching DVDs, especially watching them alone, replaces critical social interaction and give-and-take conversations that caregivers have when playing with their infants.
The brain of a baby triples in size in the first two years of life, and during this time developmentally critical pathways are formed and reinforced, largely influenced by external stimulation. Researchers have raised two concerns about the impact of TV on this young and actively developing brain: there may be too much stimulation of a harmful kind and the replacement of adult interaction may rob the infant of time sensitive, developmental input.
- The Academy of Pediatrics has it right. Infants younger than two years old would be better off developmentally if TV weren't used either as a babysitter, or a means of teaching language.
- TV/DVD viewing in early childhood has been consistently associated with language delay. Therefore, the viewing habits of all young children must be carefully monitored.
- TV/DVD viewing may have a number of negative consequences. It may over-stimulate parts of the developing brain, it may drown out or decrease normal social interactions in the family environment, and it may replace essential give-and-take communications between caregivers and children.
- Videos that have been marketed to teach language skills to infants can be misleading in their educational claims. They are often not modeled on an accurate understanding of the developing infant brain or the ways that infants learn.
Some TV/DVD watching is inevitable in the lives of most families. It can provide a relaxing or much needed break for children and parents and can be an enjoyable shared experience. Parents should try to make informed choices about the content of the videos, and the length of time their children spend as viewers. They should also have a healthy skepticism toward claims of educational DVDs for the very young child. Like many other aspects of raising children, adapting to our screen-oriented society provides another challenging opportunity to instill healthy habits.