by Mary Jessica Hammes
June 27, 2009
You see them everywhere: children’s educational DVDs, many of them featuring a scribbly illustration of a bespectacled kid with a shock of hair meant to suggest a certain famous deceased German physicist.
Ahem. We’re not naming names.
There is no proof that these DVDs will make your kid smarter. But there is proof that any viewing time, even of educational DVDs, may in fact decrease your child’s verbal development.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has updated their policy on screentime for kids for the first time since 1999. It’s almost exactly the same, but with one important difference.
Screentime is still discouraged for babies and toddlers younger than 2 years old because it could harm their development. But the new guidelines suggest parents need to watch their own viewing habits too.
It turns out that both “foreground and background” media has negative effects, says the AAP—that means that parents’ own screentime, when in the presence of their children, could negatively affect their child’s development. The lead author of the policy change, pediatrician Dr. Ari Brown, has referred to this as “secondhand TV”. Parents talk less when watching television, or passively viewing any media on computers, smartphones, or any other screens. Children reportedly glance at the screen three times a minute. Less talking results in poorer language development.
This is not exactly news. As we’ve reported before, viewing of so-called “educational” DVDs may in fact decrease your child’s verbal development. And a 2009 study—“Audible Television and Decreased Adult Words, Infant Vocalizations, and Conversational Turns,” published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine—examined television viewing, conversations between children and adults, and language development in children.
This is important information, considering U.S. viewing habits. Despite the AAP’s recommendations on screentime, the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health showed that over 50 percent of U.S. children 1–5 years of age watch more than an hour of TV each day.
The 2009 study reinforces the premise that TV affecting language development is not a new concept, citing a 2007 study in The Journal of Pediatrics which showed an association between infant TV and video viewing and delayed language development.
Another 2007 study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, also suggests that parents interact less with their kids when the television is on.
For the 2009 study, researchers used a recording device from the LENA Foundation Natural Language Study. The tiny, digital recording device weighs only two ounces and fits in a pocket of a special outfit (check out the demo to see how the device works). The processor records everything the child says and hears for 12–16 consecutive hours. That audio is then transferred to a computer and analyzed by LENA software, which can detect adult male, adult female, child (and other children’s) voices, as well as overlapping speech, noise, silence, and television or electronic sound.
The researchers sent these devices to 329 children, 2- to 48-months-old, who were recruited between January and June 2006. Parents were given a random day of the month and asked to record on that day on a monthly basis; the total number of months of participation ranged from 1–24 months, with parents participating an average of 6 months.
The LENA recorders let researchers measure how many times, and for how long, children made a vocalization, or “meaningful child speech…of any length surrounded by 300 milliseconds or more of nonspeech or silence.” The LENA software also measures “conversational turns,” or when the child had vocal interaction with an adult.
The researchers found that TV exposure was indeed associated with “significantly reduced child vocalization and adult word counts,” with every hour of television viewing decreasing the amount of child vocalizations more. Each hour of TV viewing also resulted in children hearing 770 fewer words from an adult.
The researchers comment on why this might be the case, and it seems fairly obvious: children are left in front of the television screen and adults are distracted.
Parents are cautioned not to be duped by DVDs claiming to make your baby or toddler smarter. “Purveyors of infant DVDs claim that their products are designed to give parents and children a chance to interact with one another, an assertion that lacks empirical evidence,” write the researchers. In fact, one DVD series claiming it can teach babies to read is being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (you can read more about this here).
Avoiding screentime (TVs, DVDs, computers, iPads, and more), even as “background” noise, is the best choice. Realistic? Maybe not. Or maybe not always. Just be aware that a DVD will not make your child a genius or even—gasp!—an Einstein.
Mary Jessica Hammes is an Athens, Georgia-based writer, trapeze instructor, knitter, gardener, comic book enthusiast, and hula hooper. She is mom to Tommy.
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