Today’s parents are under increasing pressure to buy educational goods for their children.
From the moment a child is born, parents are bombarded with toys and products touted as ‘educational’. Parents and teachers are often seduced by the promise that these products will give young children a ‘head start’.
But are these toys, gadgets and products really necessary? Do babies, toddlers, preschoolers and young children really need these products? Do they actually live up to their marketing hype?
Let’s look at one specific product marketed at parents of babies: Baby DVDs.
The Baby DVD industry is estimated to be worth over $500 million per year. There are many different types of baby DVDs available on the market and many parents receive these as gifts from family and friends with the very best of intentions when a new bub arrives. Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, Playtime are some popular examples.
Despite the marketing hype and claims of many baby DVD products, there is an absence of research to substantiate their claims. In 2007 Disney, the owner of the Baby Einstein DVDs was forced to offer a refund on their baby DVD range after the Federal Trade Commission found that their website and packaging claims were not supported by research.
A University of Washington study found that for each hour-per-day spent watching baby DVDs/videos, infants understood on average six to eight fewer words than those who didn’t watch. Whilst there were some methodological flaws (few babies are capable of watching an-hour of TV) in the study, the authors recommended that parents limit their use because of concerns about language acquisition.
It is important to point out that this does not mean that all TV/DVDs are bad for children. What the Washington study and other studies like it have shown, is that Baby DVDs do not provide babies with an advantage, as claimed by marketing materials.
In fact, children’s language development may be hampered by the use and over-use of these products. Interestingly, we have a growing body of evidence that shows that educational TV can actually support young children’s learning. What we don’t have at this stage, is evidence to show that babies benefits from Baby DVDs.
Parents often purchase or use these products thinking that they will enable their child to have a jumpstart on learning. Science now tells us that BABY DVDs ARE NOT THE TEACHER IN THE LIVING ROOM. In fact in November 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised their position statement on screen-time for children under 2 years of age. This revised position statement discourages media use for children under 2 years of age (it is important to note that this position statement is based on passive media like TV and DVD viewing and does not take into account more recent interactive technologies like iPads and other touch devices).
So why do babies like them?
There’s no doubt that many babies will instantly be drawn to a TV screen, often regardless of the content.
So why is that?
The ‘Pavlov Effect’ has been used to explain why babies are drawn to Baby DVDs (and TV in general). The rapid sequencing of images and musical accompaniment is the primary reason why babies are initially attracted to screens. The constantly changing images and sounds cause an ‘orienting response’ which is a primitive reflex (much like a baby’s other primitive reflexes like the startle reflex). It is a protective reflex that automatically alerts us to potential dangers and focuses our attention. The ‘newness’ and constantly changing images and audio actually engage the baby.
Therefore, the rapid screen cuts are the reason many babies appear to be mesmerised by what they see on screen. This can in turn create a hyper-vigilant mind. This is one reason why Professor Dimitri Christakis who’s Director of the Child Health Institute at the University of Washington, Seattle, cautions against the use of Baby DVDs.
What else should babies be doing?
Babies and infants need what neuroscientists call ‘serve and return’ interaction with an adult (that is lots of talking and physical interaction with adults).
They need opportunities to experiment and explore with real materials, such as blocks, sand and water.
They need face-to-face interaction with adults and other children.
They need opportunities to explore with their bodies and find out what they are capable of doing such as rolling, tummy-time, creeping, crawling, reaching and stretching.
They need to play with objects and toys and find out what they can do.
They need to hear language- songs, nursery rhymes, stories from a familiar voice. They need tactile stimulation in the form of massage.
Overall, researchers and pediatricians are concerned that Baby DVDs displace valuable opportunities for learning. If young babies have limited waking hours, then this time needs to be spent in engaging experiences with responsive adults, not screens.
What should parents do?
This is not to suggest that watching Baby DVDs will be detrimental to young children. The average length of time spent watching a Baby DVD is reported to be 9 minutes, so it is unlikely that this amount of viewing will cause long-term problems. If you do choose to use Baby DVDs, use them sparingly. As part of a balanced range of learning experiences, there is little evidence to suggest that these products will adversely affect your child. Also, when using the DVDs try, where possible, to watch with your child and discuss what you are seeing on-screen. This will build their language skills. We have lots of research evidence to show that co-viewing of media helps children learn.