Friday, September 08, 2006

Television Learning For Toddlers?

As is my usual routine in the mornings, I was absentmindedly flipping through the newspaper while sipping my coffee the other day when an article caught my attention. No, nothing to do with the war in Iraq (although I should be more current on the happenings there than I am), but an article in the Science section. Not my normal morning fare, certainly. But the headline was not something I could pass up:

CAN 2-YEAR-OLDS LEARN FROM TV?

As the mother of a 2-yr old, this definitely caught my attention.
The sub-headline was engaging as well:

Research| Videos that offer toddlers a 'social partner' seem to engage them the most.

And when the household fave Blue's Clue's was mentioned in the first paragraph, well, I was hooked. I sat down and read the entire thing. Because I often wonder if perhaps I rely a bit too much on the Boob Tube to maintain some law and order around here. I mean, don't most parents ask themselves if their kids are watching too much tv at some point? I do. I'm sure I'm not alone.

At our house, kid tv time is in the mornings. The kids would wake up and immediately head to the family room and turn on the television. PBS is the only kid-approved channel and they know just how to use the remote to get there. They wake up slowly to Clifford and Dragon Tales. It's usually on for about an hour in the mornings while they eat breakfast and I have my morning cup or two of coffee. Then later in the afternoon, as I'm trying to pull something together for dinner, I let the kids watch Cyberchase and maybe Zoom. These, too, are on PBS (starting at 5pm, usually) and tend to be science-oriented shows. Nicholas loves them, and therefore Lauren, by default, watches them too. Although she's more interested in making mischief of some sort in the room while the tv just happens to be on than actually sitting riveted like her brother. Occasionally on weekends, or in the place of the 5 o'clock shows, I'll put in a video for the kids. Nemo or Bambi or The Incredibles - animated kid stuff. Both kids clamour for videos so we dole them out carefully (sadly - or impressively - Nicholas knows exactly how to switch the television modes and operate the DVD player so he's able to pop in a movie anytime he wants. Regardless of the system. He's helped his friends put in movies at their houses, deftly navigating complicated theater systems with multiple remotes, to teach his young friend just how to do it on their own. He's the Master of all things electronic. I'm just waiting for him to re-program our computer in his spare time. Seriously. So we must be vigilant or he'll end up watching a movie without our knowledge or permission.) So yeah, I'm concerned that I'm letting the kids have too much tv. Especially Nicholas, who will also do anything short of eating broken glass to get some computer time in addition to morning cartoons.

We don't have cable tv, so we don't get the daily dose of Blue's Clue's or Dora or the rest. Those are special, reserved for when we're visiting Grandma with her satellite tv, or renting a video, or on Saturday mornings when we will allow "Nick Jr. on CBS".

This science article says that certain shows, like Blue's Clue's, encourage active engagement with the kids. It claims that academic research has shown that viewers ages 3 - 5 score better on tests of problem solving than those who haven't watched the show. (hooray! TV is GOOD!) But goes on to ask, "what happens when children under 3 watch? Should babies and toddlers be exposed to television at all?" (good question). To answers this, experiments were conducted to try to apply some science to the debate.

Vanderbilt University conducted the experiments, described in the May/June issue of Child Development. They showed that "2-yr olds are more apt to use informaiton relayed by video if the consider the person on the screen to be someone they can talk to. Without that, the children seemed unable to act on what they had seen and heard." The experiment compared two video experiences: one was based on a videotape, similar to Blue's Clue's where the actor onscreen paused to simulate a conversation but actual back-and-forth conversation was not possible. A different group of kids experienced a two-way live webcam situation. The test hinged on a hiding game.

The children who watched the video had more trouble finding the hidden object than those who participated in the webcam version. The video kids found the hidden object 35% of the time as compared to 69% by the face-to-face interaction kids.

So what does this mean? Researchers say that they found evidence that if the kids treated the video as a social partner (aka highly involved and responsive to the video), they will use the information they learned. These are the kids who found the hidden toy, by and large. The researchers pointed specifically to Blue's Clue's and they the show appeared to be "on the right track".

"Developmental psychologists point to a phenomenon called the "video deficit". It says that toddlers who have no trouble understanding a task demonstrated in real life often stumble when the same task is shown onscreen. They need repeated viewings to figure it out. Child-development experts say the deficit confirms the age-old wisdom that real-life interactions are best for babies. Parents can be assured that their presence trumps the tube."

So what? Are my kids watching too much tv or not? Well, perhaps it's not so clear and a lot depends on what they're watching. If they're watching stuff like Blue's Clue's and most things Nick Jr., then perhaps it's not as bad as I feared. Those shows aren't putting my kids' brain waves into a flatline and are instead engaging and even instructive. The antithesis of the Idiot Box. But on the other hand, non-engaging shows, like a movie for example, may not be the best choice for children. At least on a frequent basis.

And so I read this article with relief. And guilt. I think I DO allow my kids to watch probably more tv than is truly good for them. I'm a tv junkie and enjoy too many shows for my own good, so it follows that my kids probably do, too. I don't let them watch tv during the day and don't have it on to my shows either. But I'm sure I need to be even more vigilant about dialing back the amount of time they do spend in front of the tube. However, I'm feeling like that's changing already with Nicholas going to kindergarten this year. We no longer have time for cartoons in the morning, so that hour or so is eliminated right off the bat. And, his fave show Cyberchase seems to have changed it's time slot and is no longer viewable in our area at 5pm. So that seems to be out of the equation, too. In essence, my kids won't really be watching much, if any, television during the week. Perhaps a video here and there in the afternoon if we've visited the library, but by and large the television won't be part of our days anymore. That HAS to be good.

So now I'm curious - how much television do you allow your kids to watch? How much is appropriate and how much is too much? Do you feel, as this study indicates, that the type of show they watch counterbalances any negative effects of watching tv? Were your kids Baby Einstein kids? And if anyone can offer their take on computer games as well I'd love to hear your views. Nicholas seems addicted to it. He LOVES to play games (age appropriate, of course). He goes on Nickjr.com, and pbskids.org, and recently discovered the Lego site. Bionicles have been introduced to him by an older kid, so that's a big draw for him now. He has a full list of sites we've checked out and approved on his Favorites list. If allowed (which he isn't) he'd sit and play on the computer, bouncing from site to site and game to game, for HOURS. All day, probably, although I've never tried it. It's my leverage with him. Misbehaving? Take computer time away. Works every time, like magic. When he's on the computer I hear him up here laughing and grunting and reading and listening to music and having a grand time. It's anything but passive, like television. But I worry that it's too much stimulation (high speed connection) and struggle with trying to find the "sweet spot" where that's concerned. So thoughts on the computer as well as television would be appreciated.

I'm sure these are subjects that all parents of young children wrestle with. This article sort of confirmed what I had been thinking all along. What do you think?

Comments:
I think moderation is the key. We have also taught our daughter to be discerning in what she watches. Do the characters show respect to one another or are they rude? Do they talk back to their parents? Do they disobey? Together we discuss and evaluate the shows she wants to watch... in the end she ends up making very wise decisions about what she chooses to watch. It can be a great teaching tool.

And now that first grade has started there is actually very little TV time other than Sat. morning stuff. Occasionally she might watch part of a movie in the afternoon if she's really tired.
 
Both of my kids were Einstein babies. I swore when I was in college that I was not going to allow my kids to be babysat by the tv. HAH! Welcome to teh real world.

I let my kids watch PBS, and on Saturday mornings my husband lets them watch Dora and another show. We make sure its nothing violent.

I just don't think that tv is the big monster some 'experts' like to say it is. I totally agree with Robin's take on it. Moderation.
Besides, living in the midwest, the winters are long and cold. Sometimes a video is the only way to keep the sanity around here. I'd say that's better than listening ot me yell any day.
 
I think you're on par with lots of families - mine included. PBS is generally the rule here, with a very few exceptions. My girls have been known to give up daytime television viewing in anticipation of watching an old musical with the adults after dinner (we've recently REALLY enjoyed The Music Man and Oliver!).

All in moderation.
 
I don't like TV, but I grew up without one. The best thing my parents did for us. We read books or learned a hobby. I still do not watch to this day even though we have one. My boys are not allowed to watch unless it is Saturday cartoons or educational. Now they do watch DVD's and this year we have made a rule of TV is for after school. We are homeschooling this year, so it has been so nice to have the TV off until after school and chores. I have found they are not turning it on, but acting out something from their Language Arts lessons or doing drawing.

I think it is important to teach them to discern what they watch. They are pretty good at it even so young.

TV is also reserved for the hospital. Sean is in frequently and he will sit there, glued to the TV. He tells the nurses he has to watch all he can since I am a No TV person. This last stay he did ask for programming that would teach him something. We have been listening to him talk nonstop about those shows. We used TV/DVDs to entertain Sean during his breathing treatments when he was younger.
 
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