Parents who want to provide their babies a learning advantage these days often turn to what's been nicknamed "baby media" - videos specifically designed to stimulate very young minds.
But researchers and paediatricians have begun to question whether babies actually are learning anything from these videos. And new studies are finding that the videos are successful at keeping infants entertained but do little to help them pick up words and concepts.
In fact, some researchers have found that kids who start watching baby media at an earlier age are apt to show less ability with language than kids who never were exposed to the videos or started watching later.
"I don't think we've seen anything to suggest that kids younger than 18 months, even with parents' support, will learn anything from a DVD," said Rebekah A. Richert, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.
Babies nearing toddler age may pick up words or ideas by watching a DVD, but only with the help of a parent watching alongside them, Richert added.
TV and babies
She conducted a study of 96 babies between one and two years old that found no relationship between the amount of exposure to baby media and the children's general language development.
However, she and her colleagues also found that children who started watching baby DVDs at a younger age scored lower on tests of their language skills.
Their findings were echoed shortly thereafter by a University of Virginia study that found that children who viewed a baby DVD did not learn any more words than kids in a control group. The babies who learned the most words, in fact, were not exposed to the video at all. Instead, they picked them up from their parents during everyday activities, the researchers reported.
Such findings reinforce the position of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that parents limit television viewing for children younger than two, said Dr. Don Shifrin, a clinical professor of paediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and a spokesman for the academy.
"We would gently urge parents of kids under the age of two to avoid screen time with children," Shifrin said. "Play is the work of childhood. Sitting down in front of a screen is not the work of childhood."
Kids should play, not watch TV
Baby media exploded in popularity in the late 1990s, outpacing research efforts into whether the videos were truly helpful, Shifrin said.
"It turned out that the marketing was so good that everybody got into the act because people were buying them hand over fist," he said.
But Richert said that researchers now are finding that babies are not able to tie what is happening on the screen to the objects and sensations in their daily lives.
"They don't really understand the relationship between what's happening on screen and the real world around them," she said. For example, babies can't understand that a cup on the screen is the same as a cup in their hand - unless there is a parent there to make the connection.
For that reason, Shifrin and Richert said, parents who want to use baby media should watch with their children and reinforce the concepts being introduced.
Shifrin recommends that parents who want to use baby videos:
Pre-watch a video to make sure it goes at a slow, deliberate, "Mr. Rogers"-type pace. Children learn best at that pace, and less so with what he called "Warner Brothers"-style pacing.
Watch the video with their baby, talking throughout it like a colour commentator would do for a sports event and drawing connections between ideas in the video and objects around them in the home.
Turn off the television when the video is done and let their baby play a while, possibly engaging in activities related to the video. "If they're watching a video showing them how to construct something or feed a bird, then go out and do it in real life," he suggested.
"The key element is parents being involved," Richert said. "It's not just the kids watching on their own. It's not really effective to put them in front of the television on their own and expect them to make those connections."
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