Study by Wake Forest professor says toddlers learn little from TV

By Laura Giovanelli

Winston Salem Journal

July 3, 2007

This is for every parent who grinned and bore it when Teletubbies came on the tube - Tinky Winky might not have been worth it.

Your toddlers might have looked mesmerized, but they probably weren’t learning as much as you may have thought.

That’s according to research published in June by Wake Forest University professor Marina Krcmar and researchers at the University of Connecticut. Children between 15 and 24 months are more likely to learn vocabulary from a live person, or even a simple video of an adult repeating new words, than they are from voice-overs on Teletubbies.

In recent years, more television shows and DVDs for the toddler and younger set - Baby Einstein, Baby Mozart and even an entire channel devoted to the teething demographic, BabyFirstTV - have cropped up in stores and online, all marketed to parents eager to unlock their children’s inner precociousness.

While there has been research to back up some of the educational claims of shows for older children, such as Sesame Street, there hasn’t been much research done on shows geared to younger children, Krcmar said. “All those claims really aren’t substantial.”

Krcmar’s research was published June 21 in the academic journal Media Psychology.

A communication professor, Krcmar is particularly interested in how television affects children. In this study, she examined how Teletubbies affected toddlers’ ability to acquire vocabulary.

“I think the question that is still out there is how are babies responding to television,” Krcmar said.

Children normally learn how to speak about 12 months, starting with a few words as they grasp the idea that sounds and words communicate meaning, according to the study. By 24 months, most children know at least 50 words, learning new ones rapidly as they head into a time called the “vocabulary spurt,” when they can learn as many as five new words a day, the study says.

Krcmar’s study tested 46 toddlers between 15 and 24 months old.

First, the researchers showed the toddlers objects. They chose ones that they were reasonably sure that the babies might have seen but didn’t know the names for, such as a whisk or a feather duster.

Then the researchers randomly assigned nonsense names to the objects, such as “doot.” The researcher repeated the word as the toddler looked at the object.

Researchers used four other methods to teach the toddlers words: indirectly, by repeating words and showing the object while the toddler was distracted by a toy; by showing an edited Teletubbies video that showed the object and repeated the nonsense name; by showing a simple video featuring an adult showing the object and speaking the nonsense word; and by showing a video with no sound at all.

Each toddler was tested individually as they sat in a parent’s lap. The toddlers were later asked to identify the object from a larger group.

When the children learned a word from Teletubbies, they were less likely to know it later, even less likely than when they learned it from the simple video. Toddlers pointed out the correct object after watching Teletubbies 40 percent of the time. They pointed out the correct object after being “taught” a word by an adult, in person, 67 percent of the time.

And even though they appeared to pay attention to Teletubbies, the toddlers were about as likely to be able to pick out the correct object after “learning” it by indirect naming.

The difference was especially noticed in the younger toddlers SEmD older children were more likely to benefit from television.

Krcmar is hesitant to say that toddlers absolutely can’t learn from watching television. But there’s no doubt that they learn from adults, and likely better.

“When you’re dealing with an adult talking to a baby, they tend to really emphasize the object that they’re holding,” Krcmar said. “With the television, there’s not much going on. The babies don’t necessarily know what object to focus on.”

Shouldn’t we know that television can’t replace a person?

“Maybe we should know that, but maybe we need evidence to tell us if that is true,” Krcmar said. “It’s entertaining for your baby, but don’t think it will do anything else. It’s like ice cream. It’s not a bad thing but not necessarily dinner.”