The Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2007
The Glories of Kidvid
As a new study claims that screen time is harmful for babies, one dad
watches in disbelief.
By Bruce Kluger
bummer to learn that I was making my kids
Researchers at the University of Washington
and the Seattle Children's Hospital Research
Institute published a paper this month in the
Journal of Pediatrics that could blow the lid
off the multibillion-dollar baby video and DVD
industry. According to the study—and to the
shock of parents everywhere—those whiz-kid
potentially turning them into mini-morons.
Zimmerman, "is there is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVDs and
videos, and there is some suggestion of harm."
Crammed with damning data (and not a small amount of disapproving subtext), the
report found that for every hour the tiniest test subjects (8 to 16 months old) spent
watching baby tapes and DVDS, they understood six to eight fewer words than their
fellow tots, whose obviously superior parents prefer not to park their tykes in front
of the Sony Trinitron.
In other words, all that time you've invested in booting up those colorful clips of
floating flowers and tumbling blocks—backed up, of course, by synapse-sparking
snippets of Mozart—could, in fact, guarantee little Timmy a life behind the counter
at Burger King.
Gimme a break.
What I lack in a knack for science I more than make up for in field study. As the
DVD reviewer for Parenting magazine, I have watched hundreds, if not thousands,
of programs designed to divert the babble-and-drool contingent, from spoon-feedy
primers on the ABCs to lava-lamp-laden dream tapes intended to keep baby
blissfully bug-eyed (while, yes, their weary parents grab 10 minutes to make a call,
answer an e-mail or, God forbid, take a shower).
I have sat through morphing monkeys, armies of puppets and enough footage of
Cookie Monster to qualify me as the guy's biographer.
And here's my report: With the exception of a single disc (a computer-animated tale
called Doggy Poo, starring—I kid you not—a talking pile of doggy poo), I have yet
to click "play" on anything I would hesitate to show my kids.
But it's not just the content that's the problem, say the researchers. It's also the
amount of screen time—especially when this viewing robs baby of real-life
"There are only a fixed number of hours that young babies are awake and alert,"
said coauthor Andrew Meltzoff. "If the 'alert time' is spent in front of baby DVDs and
videos instead of with people speaking in 'parentese'...the babies are not getting
the same linguistic experience."
Well, duh. I don't know a parent alive who doesn't feel a pang of shame when
flipping on the tube to baby-sit; and most of us make an effort to regulate TV time—
or any activity, for that matter, that keeps our kids locked in their own world.
But where the wheels come off this study is in its methodology: The researchers
never laid eyes on their little subjects. Instead, they interviewed parents by
telephone for 45 minutes (oops—there goes that vital face-time with baby), grilling
them about telltale words in their kids' vocabularies. From these results, numbers
were crunched and determinations were made.
Granted, baby's little lexicon may be one indicator in this sort of scientific sleuthing,
but where was the human factor?
Did the researchers witness (as I have) the sparkle in a child's eyes whenever
Barney the Dinosaur transforms his neighborhood into "the land of make-believe?"
Did the data-collectors observe (as I did, with one of my daughters) a baby's
delighted urge to imitate whenever the Teletubbies whip up another batch of Tubby
Did any of the scribbling scientists stop and truly capture (as millions do, on
countless home movies) the sheer magic of a 10-month-old, who's barely mastered
the act of sitting up, clapping and singing along with the Wiggles?
To their credit, the researchers mean well. This study is part of a wider analysis of
the effects of media-viewing during the first two years of life. And the authors have
understandably cast a discerning eye on the so-called smart baby fare—such as
the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby series—whose grow-a-genius marketing claims
make them plump targets for debunking.
But there are infinite other ways in which kid-vid can widen the minds of little
viewers. When created with care (and most children's media producers do a decent
amount of research in child development), baby and toddler programs can teach
self-esteem, encourage role-play, invite interactivity and stretch the imagination.
And when viewed with a parent, which nearly all of these products recommend, they
can foster bonding.
Speaking of which, in the two hours it's taken me to write this, my daughters (now 8
and 12) have watched one Disney sitcom and one full-length movie, while my wife
cuddled up with a book. Naturally, we feel guilty about abandoning the kids--but
guess what? They'll live.