By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD
A few weeks ago I wrote a study that showed that exposing premature babies to Mozart music may lead to metabolic changes that facilitate weight gain and better medical outcomes. That study is an example of one credible and positive outcome that came out of the “Mozart effect’ craze. Unfortunately, most of the other claims, such as that listening to Mozart improves intelligence, have been discredited. So today I’m discussing a similar fad: making babies watch educational dvds or movies. For example, an entire industry has been developed to provide ‘educational’ dvds designed for infants and toddlers, such as the Baby Einstein DVD series reduced and marketed by Walt Disney. These dvds are marketed as developmentally appropriate for young children and able to facilitate the development of various cognitive skills such as language. For example, the dvd Baby Wordsworth is supposed to help babies learn 30 English words using child-friendly scenes (e.g., puppets, etc).
But do they work?
The journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine just published a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of California at Riverside. The study included 95 babies/toddlers between the ages of 12 and 25 months. These children were randomly assigned to a Baby Wordsworth DVD condition or to a no DVD group. Parents of the children in the DVD group were asked to use the Baby Wordworth DVD as they would use any other media at home. The no DVD group simply completed a series of laboratory tasks but were not provided with a dvd to watch at home. The study lasted for 6 weeks. Before and after the 6 weeks, the children went through a battery of tests and the parents completed a series of scales designed to measure the baby’s language and cognitive skills.
1. By the end of the 6 weeks, there was no difference between those infants who were repeatedly exposed to the dvd and those who were not exposed to the dvd in regards to their general language and cognitive abilities.
The above finding is not really surprising as it would be unrealistic to expect that the dvd would have a major impact on the childrens cognitive or language function in just 6 weeks. So a better question would be: Does the dvd help children learn those 30 words?
2. By the end of the 6 weeks, those infants who watched the dvd during this time were not more likely than those who didn’t watch the DVD to say the words, recognize the words, or identify the words using pictures of the objects.
The findings suggest that the educational DVD does not facilitate the learning of these words by infants when exposed to the dvd in a naturalistic setting for 6 weeks. So far, I had not been surprised by these results, but I was a bit surprised by the following:
3. Those infants exposed to the dvd at an earlier age (closer to 12 months) had lower overall language scores at the end of the 6 weeks than those exposed to the dvd at a later age (closer to 24 months) or those not exposed at all.
This seems to suggest that early exposure to the dvd can actually negatively impact language development. Although a couple of previous studies have found similar effects, this study is critical because it helps us answer one key question: does early exposure to the dvd affect language development or do children with language delays simply tend to watch more tv/dvds? For example, it is possible that parents of children who have more language delays buy the educational DVDs in order to help their children. If this is the case, there would be an association between watching dvds and language delays, but it would not be the DVD that contributed to the language delay. But this study suggests that this may not be the case because the participants in this study were randomly assigned to the DVD or the no DVD group. That is, in this study, the use of the DVD is unlikely to be due to parental concerns about the children’s language development.
So what can explain the possible detrimental effects of watching these educational dvds at an early age? The authors mentioned a couple of possibilities. It is possible that having the dvd as a tool kept the parents from engaging verbally with the infants leading to a delay in language development. It is also possible that the dvd lacks one major component of the language learning process: The Authors explain:
Regarding word learning specifically, a large body of language acquisition research suggests infants are more likely to learn words for novel objects if a speaker is looking at an object rather than attending elsewhere or looking directly at the child.18 Thus, learning words from a television screen requires children to be paying attention to the screen and also to be aware of the relevant referent object to which the on-screen labeler is referring. In the case of the DVD used in this study, the onscreen character looked directly at the children and signed the name for the object while a voice-over spoke the label. This scenario is very different from the optimal word learning scenario for children younger than 2 years.
Regardless of the reason, the results of this and previous studies seem to suggest that exposing young infants to television, even when such media was specifically designed as an educational tool for babies, may be associated with a delay in language development.
The reference: Richert, R., Robb, M., Fender, J., & Wartella, E. (2010). Word Learning From Baby Videos Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.24