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Baby, Look At You Now

Expert talks about babies’ screen viewing, effects of advertising and more

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November 11, 2010 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Babies have been exposed to television for years -- even before Sesame Street, says Ellen Wartella, a leading scholar on the effects of media on child development and a long-time Sesame Workshop trustee.

What is different in our increasingly media-saturated culture today is the amount of time even babies and children under 2 spend in front of the TV and other screens. Should we assume that is bad? Is it too late to put the genie back in the bottle? How are babies’ social, emotional and language skills affected?

In a recent article in Developmental Review, Wartella, the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor of Communication at Northwestern University, examined the historical evidence of very young children’s use of television since the 1950s by looking at studies over the years researching the issue.

The rise of baby media in recent years is unprecedented -- with baby DVDs, cable stations, CDs, websites and interactive toys all aimed at babies from birth onward, the studies show. There is very little evidence that babies are learning well from these media and virtually no guidelines on how to make baby media educationally effective.

Wartella’s early research was on advertising -- how children under 6 or 7 didn’t understand the purpose of TV advertising and how younger children didn’t even know the difference between a program and an ad. The concerns then were dental issues and TV advertising for sugar sweetened cereals and snacks.

Speed up to 2010, and she still is concerned about food advertising and kids, but it’s in the context of a childhood obesity epidemic. Last month, she spoke before Congress as chair of a prestigious Institute of Medicine committee. The “front of the package” committee is assessing the need for a single, standardized food guidance system regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and determining the nutritional information that should appear on the front of food packaging.

Learn more about the School of Communication professor’s work in the Q & A with Wendy Leopold that follows:

At what age are children exposed to media?

It happens just about from birth -- the minute that parents first prop their babies in front of the TV. The biggest difference since I entered the field is that babies are now users of videos and TV. Parents report that one in four children under the age of two have a working TV set in their bedrooms. On average, the American family with a child under 2 owns five to six baby videos.

What are babies and toddlers viewing?

Since the first Baby Einstein movie was introduced in 1997, there’s been an explosion in screen media targeted at babies and children under 2. Baby Einstein led to television shows like Teletubbies and Classical Baby, Brainy Baby and Baby Mozart videos and DVDs and Babies First TV, a cable channel devoted exclusively to babies. There are even iPhone apps for babies. Almost all of them make implicit or explicit claims about the educational value of their products.

And do they help children learn?

There’s a lot of hype about baby videos and the other products but to date there’s been no real evidence that they are successful as efficient learning tools for toddlers and infants. In a recent study of a Baby Wordsworth video, we found that the babies learned new words far more efficiently interacting with their mothers.

So are the products worthwhile?

I feel more comfortable with what’s on television, particularly Sesame Street, which does a great deal of research and testing of its target age group. The baby videos and DVDs are being created with an eye to the market, not by people who necessarily understand what goes into an educational product. Current research suggests neither positive nor negative effects. But these products are here to stay. And there’s nothing to say that better-researched and better-designed products couldn’t be educational.

What’s their appeal?

Parents see their children laugh and sing along, and they assume that they’re learning. They’re eager to give their children a leg up, they want their children to be ready for school. And there’s a kind of halo effect from a substantial body of research on three- and four-year-old Sesame Street viewers that clearly shows positive educational effects.

Do you support the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation against the use of screen media for children under the age of two?

Not necessarily. If parents are going to use them, they should be interacting with their children as they use them. Use these products like you would a toy or a book, but use them in moderation. The ground rule is not the amount of time spent with media but the quality of its content.

Topics: People