Parents regularly tell children that watching television will rot their brains, and now theres proof. According to Frederick Zimmerman and his team of researchers at the University of Washington, watching television whether its "American Idol" or "Sesame Street" actually shrinks babies vocabulary by up to six to eight words per hour. The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that "each hour per day of viewing baby DVDs/videos was associated with a 16.99-point decrement" in cognitive development compared with babies who did not watch TV.
Even if they were plopped down in front of so-called educational DVDs like Baby Einstein or not-for-profit children’s programming like "Blue’s Clues," TV-viewing babies were falling behind their peers who preferred traditional children’s literature like "Pat the Bunny." Babies who had never heard of Shakespeare, Mozart or Monet (all available from Baby Einstein) were actually outpacing TV-addicted babies in learning to talk.
In response to this latest report of the damage being wrought on our increasingly-digitized youth, the Disney Corporation, parent of the Baby Einstein Company, fired off an angry letter accusing the scientists of sloppy and irresponsible research and demanding that they retract the claim that baby DVDs actually delay language development in the under-two set.
The folks at Baby Einstein insist that their products are not designed to make babies smarter, although their very name suggests that the company is in the business of selling infant SAT prep materials to parents who want their babies to have a shot at the ivy league and a corner office, and Baby Einstein’s management bristles at the suggestion that their products might actually make babies stupid.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television at all for children under two, not because of language delay but because TV is associated with attentional and behavior problems later in life, but the folks at Baby Einstein politely disagree with this recommendation.
Instead, Baby Einstein advocates responsible television viewing – a phrase reminiscent of alcohol ads reminding us to drink responsibly – and the company goes on to imply that the DVDs it sells are even better than conventional story books for bringing families together. After all, books have to be held, while watching television "allow[s] a parent to have two free hands while enjoying and experiencing the video with their little one."
[The Baby Einstein "My First Signs" DVD, designed for babies 6 months and up, teaches "20 common words and phrases -- including 'mommy', 'daddy' and 'I love you.'" But researchers have found that babies learn these words faster from actual mommies and daddies, even when they’re holding books, than they do from TV.]
According to the Communicative Development Inventory (CDI), the test that Zimmerman’s team used to determine the linguistic development of their test subjects, the average eight-month old recognizes the words mommy, daddy, bye, peekaboo, bottle, no, and hi. That’s only seven words, but if Zimmerman’s findings are correct, an eight-month old who’s seen only one hour of television since birth should actually know none of these words.
Baby Einstein points to a Kaiser Foundation study showing that 68% of infants under two watch television on any given day. The CDI predicts that the average sixteen-month old baby will recognize about 170 words on its list. But if we put those two statistics together and assume that the average baby watches an hour of television each day, that comes to 240 viewing hours between the ages of eight and sixteen months, and that in turn means that a sixteen-month-old TV habitué should be about 1440 words behind a baby who has taken the no-TV pledge. There are probably not too many 16-month olds who know no words at all, and not many who know over 1600 words.
But wait, there’s more. Had the Zimmerman team tested the infants’ knowledge of words that TV-addicted babies are exposed to regularly, and at high volume levels, they might have found altogether different results. While a baby raised on television might not respond to please, comb, and yucky, words well up there on the CDI hit parade of baby talk, what self-respecting, TV-Guide-chewing tadpole doesn’t recognize "Operators are standing by," "We’ll be right back after this…" and "But wait, there’s more," not to mention words like bitch and ho and a whole lot worse that are the staples of the afternoon soaps and talk shows, though they would never be approved for testing by the university’s human subjects review board?
There’s another weakness in the Zimmerman report that Baby Einstein missed in its critique: on what planet did the researchers find the control group of unplugged babies who don’t watch any television?
Years ago FCC chair Newton Minow called television "a vast wasteland." But as the folks at Baby Einstein should have noted in their complaint, it’s a wasteland full of words. And babies who watch TV, which is most American babies, may know "So you don’t forget, call before midnight, tonight," even if it doesn’t appear on the CDI vocabulary list.
[Like T. S. Eliot before him, Newton Minow knew a wasteland when he saw one.]