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March 2014

"I just want to take a shower in peace!" I remember saying this a lot when my daughter was in that Toddler period. Sometimes my solution would be to shower while she slept, except most often I would get distracted by the pile of dishes, clothes, garbage and toys that sucked up that precious time before I even knew what hit me. Other times I would haul the saucer into our tiny bathroom and hope the spinning, jumping, beeping craziness would hold her for the 30 minutes I so desperately needed. I just wanted to start my day more peacefully and slowly, which meant being alone in the bathroom. What worked was PBS; actually it was the Wiggles. It was a baby free time-warp; without fail, she would watch without a fuss and I had my protected shower time. Did I feel a little bad when I saw her staring at the screen? Yeah. Did I need to? Well it depends on what else I'm doing with her.

There are so many fascinating research studies on television viewing and babies. Do babies learn new words from baby videos? Is educational programming like Blues Clues any different from baby-focused videos like Baby Einstein? Does television viewing have a negative impact on attention in preschoolers?

As usual in science the answer is it all depends. The age of the child, the type of programming, the number of viewing hours, and if viewing occurs alone or with a caregiver, are the primary variables to consider when making decisions about television viewing for children.

There's pretty much no evidence that supports any benefit from television viewing for babies under age two. It is actually this age group (around 8 to 16 months) where there is evidence that viewing baby-focused DVDs may negatively impact learning new words. It is possible that time spent watching television crowds out time parents spend directly talking to babies.

Will your child learn new words from videos? A study that used a baby-focused DVD designed to teach new words showed that 12-18 month old babies did not learn the new words from the video. On the other hand, babies did learn the new words when parents were asked to teach the words from the video in everyday interactions without watching the video.

In most families, children under two are going to watch some television. So what can you do to make the most of it? There is evidence for the benefits of co-viewing; children who said the most new words from baby-focused videos had parents who labeled most of the target words in the video and defined the words they knew were unfamiliar to their child while watching the video together.

The findings of these studies are in line with social constructivist theories of child development where interactions between caregivers and children are the context for learning and development. From this perspective, learning will not occur from isolated television viewing, but parents can use the program content as a tool for teaching words, emotions, letters and categories through shared conversations.

Learning occurs within everyday interactions between live humans who react to each other in real time with emotion, verbalizations and movements that are meaningful based on their shared history and the context at the moment. These types of exchanges -- which we do every day with our kids – are special and cannot be duplicated by a television program no matter how child-focused it claims to be. So I won't stress about the Wiggles because I needed that time so I could later be motivated to sing Fruit Salad for the 100th time.

Developmental psychologist and co-founder of The Urban Chalkboard playcafe, Jessica Beer combines her real world experience as a mother with her professional training as a researcher to provide parents with a practical way to apply the most current findings in childhood development research to their everyday life.

Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Toddler

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