Sunday, June 28, 2009

The trouble with the tube (part 2 of 2)

There is a wealth of literature on the negative impacts of television watching on developing children, and in my last post, I wrote about how certain types of television programs may lead to attentional problems later in life. I myself blame countless hours spent watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for my affinity for men who can dance. To balance the argument, can television be good for infants and children? Kids certainly claim they need the extra channels for “educational” purposes! There is overwhelming evidence that certain programs like Sesame Street have many educational benefits. It’s been shown that these programs increase school readiness, and improve vocabulary scores in children who start watching at 3 years old or older. Nowadays, though, videos and DVDs like the Baby Einstein products are being marketed for much younger children, as young as one month old in some instances. Even though the American Academy of Pediatrics favors zero exposure to television for very young children, children under two spend on average one to two hours a day in front of the tube. Who could blame them (or their parents) when media producers claim that their videos and DVDs have developmental benefits? Who wouldn’t want their child to become the next Einstein?

However exciting the claims may be, it remains unclear whether children under two can actually benefit from the information from a television screen. A 2007 study showed that children who watched more baby videos and DVDs knew fewer words than those who didn’t. In order to examine the relationship between infant DVDs and language, researchers from California studied the language skills of two groups of children 12 to 15 months old. The first group (called the control group) just went about their daily routines. The second group (the DVD group) was instructed to watch the DVD Baby Wordsworth (a DVD from the Baby Einstein company that highlights vocabulary words) at multiple time points for the duration of the study. Before and after the study, the children’s vocabulary was evaluated using a standard test.

Surprisingly, the results of the study show no significant differences between the control group and the DVD group on language skills at any time point (either before or after the study). I see this as good news, because while watching the DVD isn’t helping the children learn new words, it’s not keeping them from learning either. In addition to these results, the researchers were insightful enough to study other predictors (predictors are essentially other variables that may affect the outcome of the study). Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the amount of time a child was read to was the best predictor of a higher vocabulary score. And, since by now most of my readers realize the importance of controls, this relationship is true even when controlling for age, gender, income, parent education and development level.

Why doesn’t the DVD help the children learn new words? There are many potential explanations for this. Maybe the DVD is just not that educational. Maybe the DVD just doesn’t attract the infant’s attention. What’s even more likely is that young children just can’t process information from the television.

My dad used to read me a story every single night, and this went on well after I was able to read by myself. I still have, and will cherish forever, my favourite book of tales. I’m really grateful for all the hours my parents spent reading to me. Maybe it counteracted all the stupidity I was exposed to during my Fresh Prince phase.

Best book ever!

Reference: Just a talking book? Word learning from watching baby videos. Robb, M.B., Richert, R.A., Wartella, E.A. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 2009 27(1):27-45.

2 Responses to “The trouble with the tube (part 2 of 2)”

Anna said...

The problem with DVDs is how little interactive they are - the youngest children learn more by pushing big red buttons that make sounds.

Which just gave me an idea from hell: since "baby genius" DVDs get negative opinions, let's make baby Wii controllers! Interactive, but in unrealistic ways, breakable and, most importantly, reeeeeally expensive. I really hope something like that won't become the "baby genius dvd" of tomorrow.

Anna, baby Wii controllers are a scary thought. If you pitch your idea well to the right person, you could become ridiculously rich.

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