Baby TV: Not so Black and White
by Stephen Gass
Can you imagine someone questioning your parenting skills if what they observed was you and your baby smiling, laughing, talking, singing or playing a simple game…and your playful interactions were as a result of something you were watching on TV?
Recent headlines on the topic of “baby TV,” most of which damned Baby Einstein specifically, and, by association, all baby media, and by further association all parents who ever used or even thought of using a baby video with their child, would lead you to believe that all screen time is harmful or simply a waste of time. Others, including many academic and child development voices, argue that baby TV is not a black and white proposition. New research suggests that appropriately designed content can result in learning as well as in increases in real world interactions. It also challenges the somewhat simplistic assumption that if we just turned off the TV all would be right in the world of parenting and child growth and development.
Who or what are we supposed to believe?
In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommended no TV for children under the age of two. Interestingly, the recommendation was not based on any negative evidence. Many parents were unaware of the AAP’s position on TV, and most simply continued to use their own judgment when it came to screen-time and their babies. Recently, however, two reports coming from the University of Washington have really stirred things up.
One of these studies described the amount of time parents reported that their young children watched TV or videos:
By 3 months of age, about 40% of children regularly watched television, DVDs, or videos. By 24 months, this number rose to 90%.
the average viewing time per day rose from 1 hour per day for children younger than 12 months to more than 1.5 hours per day by 24 months.
Parents watched with their children more than half of the time.
Parents gave education, entertainment, and babysitting as major reasons for media exposure in their children younger than 2 years.
The other study suggested that 8-16 month old babies who watched videos might know 6 to 8 fewer words than those who watched no videos. As I read the coverage of this research, I had a memory flash. It was something my statistics professor said (over 30 years ago), when I was a graduate student in child development, that came to mind: “Statistics don’t lie…but beware the statistician….”
The academic community has already begun to question the validity of this study because children develop at different rates; the data was based on verbal reports from parents and not observations of babies; and conclusions about all baby videos were drawn, when in fact, none were actually tested. While it’s true that lots of babies are watching lots of screens, it’s also true that, for the most part, parents are sharing the experience.
A few years ago, another study which collected all of its data about a relationship between early TV viewing and later attention difficulties simply by interviewing parents, also captured the headlines. No such relationship has ever been shown clinically. Surprisingly, however, the research report (Stevens and Muslow, 2006) that demonstrated that there is no link between early television viewing and later development of ADHD symptoms, invalidating the earlier study, never made the headlines.
Nevertheless, the good news is that this latest study in the news has been a catalyst for a broader dialog.
Research, reason and responsibility
The children’s programming community, the academic community, and moms and dads are ready to talk about what we really know about how and whether baby videos can be a practical tool in a parent’s arsenal of early learning aids. We live in the 21st century. It’s a media-centric world. We know in many cases that media can inform, entertain, teach (think PBS, Discovery, History Channel, etc.) and even change minds and behaviors. It’s time for the conversation.
Dr. Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards, says “After decades of research, scientists and child development experts have come to a clear conclusion: Play is the best way for children to learn.” Yet Hirsh-Pasek is also an academic advisor for eebee’s adventures, a new infant/toddler video series. (Full disclosure: I am the creator of eebee’s adventures) How can that be? Hirsh-Pasek says, “eebee’s adventures sparkle with a creativity that shows how the magic of everyday moments can become extraordinary learning opportunities.”
Hirsh-Pasek believes that video content that can “come off the screen and onto the living room floor” might have the potential to prompt real interactions between a parent and child and therefore, could make a difference for both parent and baby. She acknowledges that more research needs to be done on the topic. She adds, “Exaggerated science has convinced many parents that we have to be shoving facts into our children’s heads and that we have to somehow be memorizing numbers even in infancy.” She cautions against any infant learning material that is focused on a narrow range of “right answers” and broad claims of academic achievement.
Dr. Deborah Linebarger, a children’s media research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, echoes Hirsh-Pasek’s point of view, and has been at the forefront of conducting research that is both longitudinal and that looks at what’s actually on the screen. “If what’s on the screen reflects a baby’s world and the types of situations a child might naturally be observing, then there’s the likelihood that very young children can understand it and potentially learn from it,” she says. She explains that “much of the AAP’s concern was initially voiced because the research on the effect of screen time on babies was very limited. We know more now, and the trend is clear. Content, what the babies are actually watching, can make a difference.”
Linebarger also points out that there’s a difference between “foreground TV,” TV that is intended for the child to watch and “background TV,” TV that is simply on as a constant backdrop to the baby’s other activities. “The always on, extraneous voices and constant droning of background TV can interfere with early language learning,” she cautions. “With foreground TV,” she adds, “the effect of the program, positive, negative or none is a program-specific question.”
One of the more interesting facts in the current debate over “baby TV” (foreground TV) is that all programming created for the under-two set is being lumped together. In some ways, that’s like saying all books, all music, all toys are the same. One of Linebarger’s studies confirms that the opposite is true. She found that a very young child’s expressive language skills can be affected by how language is used in the TV shows they watch. She found that shows with simple narratives had a positive effect on language skills and others with either complex scripts or minimal language had less than optimal effects. Unlike the recent vocabulary study from the University of Washington, Linebarger actually observed real children.
While it’s clear that a lot more research that looks into specific features of programming needs to be conducted, Linebarger cites some interesting—and comforting—studies that report:
a positive relationship between early TV viewing and by infants and later spatial skills;
with repeated exposure, there’s no difference in learning a simple task from a TV model or live model…even for children as young as 6 months;
a positive effect that resulted from parents and children watching certain “baby” programs together, prompting more parent/child interactivity even after the program was turned off;
no relationship between the amount of time children under five watched TV and the amount of time they spent in active play or being read to. This same study also reported that with an hour a day of TV, for children between the ages of 0-2, there was a parent-reported reduction in time involved in “creative pastimes,” such as playing with toys and games or imaginative play.
These findings seem to suggest that there just might be a reasoned path to follow for those who are comfortable with the research-supported ideas that a video can provoke new and interesting parent-child interactions and the right content can have a positive effect on certain skills. Baby TV seems to be more about what, how and how often it’s used. These findings have prompted some experts, including Linebarger, to recommend some simple guidelines:
Keep it simple: Select programs that have simple stories or structures and are not overwhelming with auditory or visual features.
Keep it real: kids under 2 are just beginning to figure out how the world works and they work in that world. What’s on the screen, if anything, should reflect their world and what they are trying to accomplish versus function as video flash cards.
Be wary of big promises: babies are not going to learn advanced symbol systems such as the alphabet and numbers or complex skill sets such as reading or computational mathematics simply by looking at a screen.
Get involved: Co-view--watch and narrate along, talk and interact with your child.
Look for your child’s level of engagement: does your child smile, laugh, point, gesture, imitate, or verbalize as she watches? Watch for those moments. Talk with your baby about what you observe. If your child is not noticeably engaged shut the TV off.
Do the mom-test: If what’s on the screen doesn’t make sense to you…it won’t make sense to your baby.
Limit screen time: This is a quality versus quantity debate. Screen time used in moderation can have a positive effect on children’s learning.
The reality is that babies, in general, are social learners. Babies get a lot of stimulation from a lot of very different stimuli…people, pets, books, music, toys, boxes, keys, your glasses, your hair, your clothing, pots, pans, doors… and videos. Nevertheless, they need you, their first teacher (and favorite toy) to help them make sense of the world and build knowledge and skills. If moderate co-viewing of appropriate content results in babies and parents smiling, laughing, talking, singing, dancing, and playing, before, during or after viewing, isn’t that, after all, exactly what the doctors ordered?
Stephen Gass is an innovator in the field of children’s media with over 20 years experience in the design and development of learning products for kids of all ages. Trained as a developmental psychologist, Gass began his career teaching elementary school. He served as Director of Education for the Sesame Street theme park, Sesame Place; a founding editor of Electronic Learning Magazine; and editorial director of the CBS Interactive Learning Unit. Gass launched an educational toy division at Coleco. As Senior Vice President of Product Development for Viacom New Media, Gass led the team that created the first software products for both Nickelodeon and MTV. Gass also played a senior creative role in the early development of Viacom’s learning network, Noggin. Gass held the position of Group President, online (SesameStreet.com) at Sesame Workshop. Gass is the co-founder and president of the Every Baby Company, and creator of the award-winning infant/toddler series, eebee’s adventures. http://www.eebee.com/
Gass is a member of both the Education Committee at PBS-affiliate WNET-TV in New York as well as the board of trustees of the Toy Industry Foundation.
Gass received a B.A. in psychology from New York University, an M.A. in developmental psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, and completed work toward a Ph.D. in educational psychology at The City University of New York.