Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Can the Idiot Box Make Your Baby Smarter?

Last week I wrote about a small study that looked at the effects of Spongebob on "executive function" in 4-year-olds.  While that was my most popular post to date -- apparently quite a few of you are fans of the phylum Porifera -- it barely tapped into the mountain of research on T.V. and kids. Today let's talk about whether Baby Einstein will, indeed, make your baby an Einstein.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 not be exposed to any electronic screens, including T.V., computers and smartphones.  (As one reader asked, "Does that include Skype time with Grandma?"  There are probably no studies, but let's just stipulate that the AAP would allow that loophole.)  Practically speaking, there aren't too many 1-year-olds with the manual dexterity to play Angry Birds, so we'll stick to the studies on T.V. in the under-2 set.

First of all, do parents even follow the AAP guidelines?  One study, conducted five years after the recommendations were published, found that 18-month-olds watch an average of 2.2 hours of T.V. a day -- which means, of course that some really lazy parents let their toddlers watch 4 hours a day, to average out the TeleNazi parents who ban the boob tube altogether.  Of course, I'm not one to talk: my 18-month-old watches about an hour a day, more on weekends.

The amount of time babies watch T.V. has risen over the years, largely because there are now many programs developed specifically for the very young.  The blurb on my old copy of the immensely popular Baby Mozart DVD promises "countless hours of viewing and listening delight, coupled with meaningful learning....You can choose to expose your child to eight languages through the use of pictures, text and pronunciations by native speakers....study tracks are designed to develop vocabulary and reading skills."  The suggested viewing age?  1 to 36 months.

Then a 2007 study blew the creators' claims out of the water.  ("Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years.") It was a telephone survey of over a thousand parents of children ages 2 to 24 months, exploring possible associations between parental interaction, the type and amount of television exposure, and language development.  First, the good news:  daily reading resulted in a 3- to 4-word increase in vocabulary in 8- to 16-month-olds.  But if your baby watched either Baby Einstein or its chief competitor, Brainy Baby, he or she suffered an average 7- to 8-word decrease in vocabulary for every hour of video watched.  The study drew first blood, the lawyers started circling, and Disney offered a full refund to Baby Einstein customers.

So how might T.V. retard language acquisition in babies?  One theory is that babies simply don't learn concepts as well from video as they can from an equivalent live experience.  This "video deficit" has been verified in several laboratory studies.  Though this might explain why a video might not be educational, it doesn't explain the "dumbing down" effect.  Another possibility is that exposure to T.V. reduces parental interaction, which is highly correlated with language acquisition, as well as playing with toys, which also promotes learning.  And finally, remember that association doesn't prove causation.  Parents who spend less time with their babies, for whatever reason, may simply have the T.V. on all the time.

Of course, that one study didn't prove that all T.V. is bad for babies.  One better designed, prospective study had 51 families keep a log of what their 6- to 30-month-old children were watching.  ("Infants' and toddlers' television viewing and language outcomes.")  The investigators then tested the children's language skills every 3 to 6 months.  It turns out that what the toddlers watched was every bit as important as how much they watched.  Babies who watched Blue's Clues and Dora the Explorer had a significant increase of 13 words above the average at 30 months, followed closely by those who watched Arthur and Clifford.  On the other hand, Barney and Teletubbies were negative influences, with about 10 fewer words.  Confirming what most parents have suspected all along: that being forced to listen to the cultish refrains of "I love you, you love me" destroys brain cells.  Intriguingly, Sesame Street did not seem affect vocabulary acquisition in toddlers, despite its well-documented benefits in older kids.
So the AAP's recommendation of absolutely no screen time for those under 2 is probably overreaching.  Even in the case of Baby Einstein, the saga isn't over.  The creators of the videos just won a settlement against the University of Washington, when they discovered that their 2007 study debunking their videos had a number of flaws.  For one thing, the investigators changed their outcomes midway through their study, a practice known as data dredging (essentially they were casting a wide net and seeing what turned up "statistically significant").  For another, by the time the children were 17- to 24-months, all the vocabulary deficits had disappeared.

Even though the jury is still out, it is pretty unlikely that these baby DVDs will turn my JoJo a genius.  So do I plan on getting a refund from Disney?  Not on your life.  Just because something isn't evidence-based doesn't mean I won't use it.  As un-educational as they may be, these DVDs sure are good babysitters, and let's face it, sometimes Mommy just needs a break.

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