brucekluger.com

    The Los Angeles Times, August 15, 2007

    Commentary
    The Glories of Kidvid
    As a new study claims that screen time is harmful for babies, one dad
    watches in disbelief.

    By Bruce Kluger


    And here I thought I was an OK dad. What a
    bummer to learn that I was making my kids
    dumb.

    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 studyand to the
    shock of parents everywherethose whiz-kid
    programs we've been pumping into our precious progenies' soft skulls are
    potentially turning them into mini-morons.

    "The most important fact to come from this study," claimed lead author Frederick
    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 blocksbacked up, of course, by synapse-sparking
    snippets of Mozartcould, 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, starringI kid you nota 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 timeespecially when this viewing robs baby of real-life
    interaction.

    "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 (oopsthere 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
    Toast?

    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 faresuch as
    the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby serieswhose 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.