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Yet Another Reason to Kill Your Television…

Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D.For many New York City parents, popping in an educational DVD or turning on the television for your children is a necessary evil to occupy young minds while you get dinner ready after a long day at work or perhaps an even longer day spent with your kids indoors during this rainy summer. The question of whether or not watching television, including educational videos, is detrimental or beneficial for children is one of those third rails of parenting that can make even the chummiest of play groups parents turn quiet and steely quick.

Should children watch television? If so, how much? What kind of programs? I mean television is bad for my child, right? What about educational videos? They have to be okay…right?

Many parents have some sense that too much television is a negative thing. The usual set of beliefs is that if children are watching a video or TV, they are not doing other things that are crucial to their development like creative play, reading, exercising, and hanging out with friends. This bit of parenting wisdom, that television and videos are a poor substitution for engaging with life, is now beginning to be more thoroughly documented and vetted by neuroscience. In short, kids need face-to-face interaction in order to learn.

When it comes to language development, according to Healthday.com, researchers at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital found that in a study of 329 children aged 4 years old and younger, each hour of additional television watched corresponded with a 7% (770 word) decrease in the vocalizations parents made to their children, as well as decreased vocalizations by the infants and toddlers to their parents. Basically, when the television or a video is on, parents talk less to their children who then do not get a chance to practice talking back to their parents. If this happens repeatedly, potential delays in language development can emerge.

“Some of these reductions are likely due to children being left alone in front of the television screen, but others likely reflect situations in which adults, though present, are distracted by the screen and not interacting with their infant in a discernable manner,” wrote Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, of Seattle Children’s Hospital, and colleagues.

Okay, so it seems kind of self-evident that more television and videos means less child-parent chatter, but why is social interaction such a crucial part of development? Wouldn’t it also make sense that if the video or television show was talking to the toddler that they would have an opportunity to hear and practice the same vocalizations?

Well, according to new findings from researchers at The University of Washington (published in Science this month), there is something inherently social about the nature of human intelligence and learning. Babies and toddlers are not only taking in information like computers, they are scanning to see what their parents are looking at and experiencing varying levels of their parents energy and excitement when they come across something interesting.

“A major role we play as parents is teaching children where the important things are for them to learn. One way we do this is through joint visual attention or eye-gaze. This is a social mechanism and children can find what is important – we call them informational ‘hot spots’ – by following the gaze of another person. By being connected to others we also learn by example and imitation.” Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D. University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences

For example, toddlers were able to learn a second language when taught by another person face-to-face, but not from the same person on television. Thus the moral of the story might be for now that in and of themselves television and educational videos are not intellectually stimulating for your kids, but potentially your interaction with your children while watching a program might be.

Have no fear harried parents, the quest has already been embarked upon by researchers to create robots and computer programming that are more human-like and thus more educational. The witching hour might have a guilt-free, parental substitute yet.

About the Contributor: Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D. is an advisory team member and regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of parenting and child development.

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