Babies and TV Screens Don't Mix

“Baby Einstein” videos will not get your kid into Harvard.  In fact, they may delay his development.  Those are the findings of a new study from the University of Washington, reported in TIME on August 6.

The findings lend support to a 1999 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics which urged parents to keep children under the age of two away from “screen media.”  It is advice many parents fail to follow because the “electronic babysitter” is just so convenient.  The marketing of “edutainment” videos aimed at babies, like the “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Babies” video lines, plays on this knowledge.

In the University of Washington study, researchers found that 40 percent of three-month-old babies are regular viewers of DVDs, videos or television.  By the time children are two years old, 90 percent are spending two or three hours a day in front of a screen.

According to the article in TIME, “…the research team found that with every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants learned six to eight fewer new vocabulary words than babies who never watched the videos. These products had the strongest detrimental effect on babies 8 to 16 months old, the age at which language skills are starting to form.” 

One of the researchers said babies who watched these videos scored 10 percent lower on language skills than babies who did not watch them.  Babies learn best from interaction with real people, especially their parents.  Language skills are shown to increase with babies who are read to daily.

Researchers who study media and children are concerned that videos aimed at babies do only one thing: overstimulate them.  In the TIME article Dr. Dimitri Christakis, one of the lead researchers on the study, said: “There is an assumption that stimulation is good, so more is better.  But that's not true; there is such a thing as overstimulation.” Christakis's group found that the more television children watch, the shorter their attention spans later in life. “Their minds come to expect a high level of stimulation, and view that as normal,” said Christakis, “and by comparison, reality is boring.”

Other studies looking at the effects of media consumption and children include those linking rising rates of autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) with watching television, and brain mapping studies that look at how the brain is stimulated when playing violent video games.

The bottom line is that exposure to media does in fact affect us.  And it affects the youngest of us the most.  In a media-saturated society, which includes iPods, computers, video games, television, movies and radio, it really is in the best interest of our children to just unplug…. and talk.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.