Friday, March 06, 2009

Television, young children and reality

Another study has come out suggesting that infant-oriented educational DVDs have no beneficial impact on children:
Watching television does not make babies smarter, according to a study released this week in the journal Pediatrics, adding to existing research that challenges the usefulness of baby educational videos and DVDs.

Researchers from Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and Harvard Medical School reached this conclusion after monitoring more than 800 children from birth to 3 years of age.

"Contrary to parents' perceptions that TV viewing is beneficial to their children's brain development, we found no evidence of cognitive benefit from watching TV during the first two years of life," the authors wrote.

Educational DVD and videos geared towards enriching babies and toddlers, such as "BabyGenius," "Brainy Baby" or "Baby Einstein," which proclaim to "encourage discovery and inspire," have no benefits, researchers said.

In the interest of full disclosure, Lori and I did buy several "Baby Einstein" DVDs for Kirby to watch when he was a baby. They were recommended to us by other parents, and while we never harbored any notions that watching such videos would make Kirby, well, an Einstein, we did think that the soothing music and vivid colors in these videos would stimulate him. Perhaps we were wrong.

That being said, I'm a bit annoyed by this quote:

Pediatrician Dr. Michael Rich, a co-author of the latest study from Boston, calls baby educational DVDs and videos "just wasted time."

"At the very best, they steal time from much more productive cognitive developmental activities," he said. "Ultimately, what it's about is to make parents not feel guilty about an electronic baby sitter."

I have no doubt that child development experts make statements such as this with the best interest of our children in mind. But let's face it: while it's very easy for a Harvard-educated academic physician to make this pronouncement, it simply ignores reality. Odds are that Dr. Rich, like a majority of pediatricians, makes enough money to hire a full-time nanny or sustain a single-income household such that he doesn't have to make use of an "electronic baby sitter." But that's just not the way things are for the average two-income family. While any good parent would like to spend as much time as possible reading or playing games with their child, there are also other chores - cooking, cleaning, balancing the checkbook - that require attention. Sometimes that "electronic baby sitter," problematic though it may be, comes in rather handy.

But Karen Hill Scott, a senior fellow at UCLA who works in the field of child development, said the criticism ignores real life. "To me, as a scientist and parent, we can't hold on to completely demonizing screen time when parents are really very determined to use it."

Modern parents "want kids to be literate on computers. They don't see the screen media as evil," said Scott, a consultant for Baby Einstein."The net effect that it's not harmful is a relief to many families who have been made to feel guilty or awful that they use screen time."
On one hand, children ideally should engaged in activities other than passively sitting and watching television. Parents should not rely on the television to keep their children occupied and should not believe that "educational" programming will really make their children smarter. But on the other hand, maybe it isn't a good idea to have the medical elite pass judgment upon the millions of parents out there who simply cannot provide their young children with an alternative to television viewing all of the time.

Is there room for some sort of compromise here?

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