A while back I received a question from a mother about Baby Einstein DVDs and similar products. She had received a bunch of them at her baby shower and said she felt "a little uncomfortable" showing them to her 3 month-old. She wondered if there were any studies out there that might help her decide.
This is an excellent question. It’s one that I hear from many parents who are confused about the mixed messages they are receiving about their babies and the media. On one hand, the American Academy of Pediatrics and many child development experts have recommended that children not watch any television before the age of two, (and I heartily agree with this recommendation.) On the other hand, more and more media products are being targeted toward this age group, with names (like “Baby Einstein”) that suggest they will make children smarter.
First of all, there is no scientific evidence that babies and children benefit from exposure to media before the age of two. And media products such as Baby Einstein were not created by child development experts. According to its web site, Baby Einstein was developed by a mother who wanted to share her love of art, classical music, language and poetry with her infant. While this is indeed a worthwhile goal, doing this by exposing babies to videos is not the most developmentally appropriate method.
The American Academy of Pediatrics argues that infants and children up to the age of two need to spend the bulk of their time in interactive activities that promote brain development, including talking and playing, singing and being read to. What young children need the most is to interact with real people and with real objects in the real world. Baby Einstein’s web site argues that their videos are designed to promote parent-child interaction. However, sitting on a parent’s lap while she reads a book to you and shows you the pictures is a lot more interactive than watching a video together, and it provides a great deal more essential cognitive learning. To the extent that video watching displaces other more interactive activities, it should not be beneficial.
But as a researcher focused on child development and the media, I believe there are other potentially detrimental effects of infants’ exposure to media. As I argued in my parenting book, “Mommy, I’m Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them,” a great deal of learning goes on in the first and second years of life, and the best way for an infant to discover the world is to interact with it directly. Videos stimulate the senses of sight and hearing, but do not engage the sense of touch (or taste or smell). Young children learn an incredible amount in the first few years by picking things up in their hands, turning them over, and dropping them, for example. They learn that they can exert control over objects, and they learn certain essential facts of the physical world. For example, they learn “object permanence,” which means that if you cover your toy rattle with a blanket, it’s still really there and you’ll find it when you pick the blanket back up. They also learn that if you let go of your rattle while holding it out, it will fall to the ground. These are important learning milestones about the laws of physics. But if you look at TV, these laws don’t apply: Something can appear and disappear in a flash, and a chair can fly through the air for no reason. Time and space on TV also do not follow the rules young children are struggling to learn. So it seems to me that we ought to delay children’s exposure to the “magical” world of media until after they’ve mastered these real basics.
There is no evidence, as of yet, that Baby Einstein products are actually harmful to kids. No controlled research has yet appeared in the scientific literature on this product. There is scientific evidence, however, that another popular media product targeted to the under-2 age group, “Teletubbies,” which is shown on public television, is associated with delayed language learning.
I don’t mean to alarm parents into thinking that they’re ruining their children’s chances for success if they let them watch these videos at a young age. But I do think that young children are just as fascinated by colorful age-appropriate toys that they can manipulate in their own hands, or ordinary items you can find in any home, like a box with a top on it or the gift-wrapping their present came in. And they’ll learn a lot more through this more active exploration than they would by watching a video. Why not introduce a baby to Mozart with an audiotape, so that he can learn something with his hands at the same time? Or teach her about art with picture books that she can look at, turn upside-down, and turn over? Or with a sculpture that she can feel as well as see? There’s plenty of time later for media exposure, and for many other reasons, it’s good not to let your child become too much of a media fan too early.