July 20, 2010

“My Baby can learn, but not through TV”

By Jeff Hutchinson, MD FAAP

There are two truths that we as pediatricians should accept. The first is that television and video entertainment is here to stay. The second is that parents who use video entertainment don’t want to feel guilty about using it. In October 2009, the Disney Company conceded that the Baby Einstein product line was misrepresented as educational and offered parents a refund. This offer has since expired and the number of parents who took advantage of the refund is difficult to find. I suspect that Disney did not lose much and may have gained supporters by showing honesty and concern.

The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to discourage TV viewing for children under two because developmentally it teaches them only how to watch TV and likely causes harm in language development(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(6):554-558). The 2001 AAP policy statement on Children, Adolescents and Television recommends, “Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.” However a 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation survey “Zero to Six” reported 68% of children under two use screen media on a typical day. This demographic of toddler television viewers has inspired the creation of products directed at parents who want educational screen time.

One product , the “Your Baby Can Read” series, claims that these instructional videos will teach your baby to read. Wouldn’t that be a parent’s dream? Plop the kids down in front of the TV and go about your business. When you return, your baby can read.

None of the educational products claim to work that way. They emphasize that the screen is a teaching device for the parent. Calling the products educational tools and comparing the videos to a teaching aid may quiet some critics, but even a die hard videophile knows that interaction is the most important aspect of development. The reality of life is that interaction with a TV screen and child often takes a back seat to laundry, dishes, meals, bills and the thousand other tasks that a parent has to do. A book forces interaction while a screen allows the caregiver to step away.

As pediatricians and parents we have to acknowledge that parents need breaks. Organized and fortunate parents get those breaks during naps. Many parents do not. Just as we talk about second hand smoke and the health benefits of quitting, we should also discuss video exposure and the benefit of stopping exposure under 2 years old. We should discuss it with the same non-judgmental but research proven emphasis we give tobacco exposure, along with the recommendation to limit exposure at all other ages. We as pediatricians can discuss if parents believe that babies and children learn from TV. We should be ready to acknowledge the need for a distraction but discourage the fantasy that TV alone has any place in early development.