When and How to Use TV

When and How to Use TV Early Learning Tips

Whether or not babies learn from watching television has been a controversial topic in part because of misleading reports about the data from a highly publicized study. Those stories stated that the more babies watched TV, the fewer words they learned. However, this was only a small part of the story. The babies who watched some television knew more words than the babies who watched no television. This part of the story was rarely, if ever, mentioned in the original media reports which caused many parents to not allow their babies to use the television as a multisensory learning tool. Additionally, the babies who watched the most television from that study were in lower-socioeconomic-status households where babies typically do not receive as much language exposure. Since the early studies on babies and television, there have been several studies showing that the content of what babies watch is extremely important.

I have been speaking out publicly against babies and toddlers watching entertainment-based TV for more than 20 years – before the American Academy of Pediatrics issued their first statement and long before other groups formed to speak out against babies watching TV. I have always been against parents showing too much television or mindless shows for their babies and toddlers. I originally made the first Your Baby Can Learn! videos for my daughters because I did not want my own babies to watch entertainment-based TV shows or videos.

More than 20 years ago, as a busy parent who was working full time and attending graduate school, I made the precursor to Your Baby Can Learn! for my own baby because I found that there were times when we were too busy to give her the amount of verbal stimulation that I believe babies need. The same was true when she was at the babysitter’s home – she was missing out on opportunities for verbal stimulation. We used the videos in certain situations to allow her to see and hear languages. We used the same approach with our second baby, and now more than one million babies have used Your Baby Can Learn!

In spite of my opposition to babies watching most television, in my view it is not the television that is the problem in most cases. Rather, it is the content the babies are watching (entertainment-based versus educational) and how babies are watching (passively versus actively) that causes many problems.

When used properly, a television can be a multisensory device that provides valuable information. Some people state that infants should not watch television because there is a “video deficit” where infants don’t learn as much from watching a video as they do from a person. However, this can depend on the concept being taught, what is on the video, and the other options available. For example, if a child is learning about an elephant, it is better to see an elephant in person than on a video. In person, the child could see, hear, and smell the elephant. However, a video of an elephant may provide information about how an elephant moves or sounds that isn’t available in a photo. Drawings often don’t give accurate information about animals, but people generally don’t complain about a “book deficit” in children’s learning. These are the five conditions that I believe should generally occur when using TV with babies and toddlers:

  1. The DVD or TV show should be interactive, not passive. Babies should be encouraged to say words, do physical actions, answer questions, sing, or somehow interact with the videos. Even if young infants do not yet have the capabilities to interact, it is better if they are being encouraged to engage with an educational program.
  2. The DVD or TV show should be multisensory. In other words, what the baby sees and hears should go together logically. This multisensory approach is very important because infants and toddlers have thousands of new brain connections, or synapses, forming every second. Many of these new synapses go from the visual cortex to the auditory cortex when babies experience auditory and visual stimuli and to and from the somatosensory cortex if babies do some action related to what they see or hear. Many other baby DVDs actually show babies images while playing sounds (usually classical music) that do not go with those images. This means that the new synapses would not go together in a logical way.
  3. The DVD or TV show should teach the children something with lasting value. Many TV shows and baby videos only entertain the baby and do not teach much content. 
  4. The DVD or TV show should use spoken and written language and/or music (mostly with lyrics). There is a window of opportunity for learning language skills. According to research, the number of synaptic connections related to language acquisition peaks just before 11 months of age. Hart and Risley (1995) did a landmark study showing that the most important factor correlated with a child’s vocabulary at age 11 was the number of words spoken to the child by age 3. This was more important than the parents’ IQs, socioeconomic factors, or the child’s IQ. The DVDs or TV shows could teach some language skills (or other important skills such as math or music skills) when people are not talking with the child. 
  5. The DVD or TV show should be better than other options available to the parent. If you are busy on your phone or laptop, attending another child, or otherwise occupied and not providing verbal stimulation for your baby, then a DVD may be a better option for your baby as long as the first four conditions are met. If you are full of energy and you have free time, then obviously it would be better for you to lovingly interact with your baby while talking to your child as much as you can. If you are tired but not that busy, you could sit with your baby and interact while you watch a DVD together. Obviously, the baby should enjoy the experience of watching the video or you should find an alternative option.

For parents who say they aren’t going to show any videos to their babies or toddlers because of a negative study that was in the news about a decade ago, the data from that study were reanalyzed and published. In fact, the original “negative” study actually showed that babies who watched some TV knew more words than babies who watched no TV or babies who watched a large amount of TV (Ferguson & Donnellan, 2014).

Please remember that all television programming is not the same and I am not suggesting that you put your baby in front of the TV for most of the day. Even though most adults use it primarily for entertainment, the television is not usually the problem because a TV can be a multisensory learning tool for babies just as it can be for us. As adults, we know that if we watch a reality TV show that we are watching an entertainment-based show and we may not learn much of lasting value. It even matters which reality show is being viewed. We could also watch programs that are designed to educate or inform us. The same is true for babies – the program can simply entertain the baby or it could possibly help the child’s vocabulary or teach something with a lasting value. The main difference is that babies’ brains are developing much more rapidly than adult brains, so it is more important to make better use of your baby’s time.

—Dr. Robert C. Titzer



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